Martin McGuinness: Some Thoughts on the Passing of a Terrorist Turned Peacemaker

McGuinness meets HM Queen Elizabeth

Long before the language of ‘the war on terror’ became popular in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the USA, terms such as terror, terrorism, and terrorist were already commonly used in everyday language and conversation by anyone, like me, who had grown up in Northern Ireland during the years of the modern day ‘Troubles’ of my homeland. They were words commonly heard on television and news reports, as well as often being overheard in the conversations that adults were having around children and young people. These words were used so much because terror and terrorism were a part of daily life in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998.

One of the names synonymous with the term ‘terrorist’ was that of Martin McGuinness. He was infamous as a key player in the Republican cause, and widely known to have been a senior commander within the IRA. For someone like me, who grew up in the protestant/unionist side of the fence in Northern Ireland, when Martin McGuinness’s name was mentioned on TV, or in conversation with others, the emotional response within was not a happy or pleasant one. No, the very thought of this man, for a young ‘prod’ in Northern Ireland in the 1980’s and 1990’s, was enough to make the blood boil because we all knew, without any doubt, that Martin McGuinness was a man who most definitely had much blood on his hands.

But then Northern Ireland began to change. Paramilitary organizations announced ceasefires. Peace was now, apparently, a possibility in our troubled country. Politicians were sat around the table with a determined hope to create a new Northern Ireland with a brighter future.

And Martin McGuinness was right in the middle of it.

The terrorist was now becoming the peacemaker. And ultimately, the terrorist did become a peacemaker.

Martin McGuinness died today, aged just 66.

Understandably, news of his death has brought about a wide spectrum of responses from politicians, members of bereaved families who lost loved ones during the troubles, and other political commentators. I suppose I want to throw in my own ‘2 cents’ worth too.

As I awoke to the news this morning I could not help but be gripped by the story. Like I said above, there have been years in my life when Martin McGuinness’s passing would not have caused me to have a second thought but this is not the case today. Today I have been gripped by the talk radio programs that are giving a lot of airtime and attention to McGuinness’s passing, and I am paying close attention to the words and tributes of my friends on social media too. Today, I can’t help but feel that Northern Ireland has lost one of its political giants who, despite his evil past, has ended up being central to the creation of a new Northern Ireland; a Northern Ireland which is unrecognizable when set beside the Northern Ireland in which I grew up.

I lament and abhor Northern Ireland’s past and the suffering that took place in those years. I spent three wonderful years in ministry to the Shankill Road community, a Belfast community ravaged by the Troubles. In my congregation I had many people who had lost close relatives and loved ones at the hands of Martin McGuinness’s IRA, including two ladies who had lost their husbands to intentional violent, terrorist attacks on the Shankill Road community. I spent time with and listened to the stories of the people of that community, and I find myself very much in sympathy with them. Their personal loss and pain is one which still deeply scars their lives, and the life of the wider community around them. In love for, and in sensitivity to, my friends there, and the wider community of the Shankill, I do not wish to glorify Martin McGuinness’s life of violence, or play down the pain which was caused by his organization in those most horrible of days. However, whilst McGuinness’s life and actions were almost certainly responsible for much of the pain suffered in those days, it would not be fair to label him only as a terrorist, because, whether folks can bring themselves to accept this or not, Martin McGuinness ultimately laid down the weapons of warfare and terror, and took on the role of peacemaker in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is a complex little country in which the divisions of the past have completely defined how a couple of generations worth of people have formed relationships. Protestant children went to state schools. Roman Catholic children went to Roman Catholic schools. Protestant young men dated and, by and large, ultimately married Protestant young women. Roman Catholic young men dated and ultimately married Roman Catholic young women. The areas in which we lived would be clearly defined by the colours of the various flags and emblems on display: red, white and blue for the unionists, and green white and orange for nationalists. One would always know the ‘identity’ of the community one was in by the presence of those colours. We grew up knowing who was who by where we lived, or by what school uniform we wore, or even by how we spelt our names (unionists tended to use purely anglo names and spellings, whereas nationalists might have been more likely to use more Irish names, and even use Irish spelling of such names). In a culture like this it was all to easy to comfortably live in a society that embodied a “them and us” mindset. In this kind of culture and society relationships could not easily be forged across the lines of division which existed in every aspect of life. But when the peace process gathered pace things began to change. Paramilitary organizations that were once shooting at and blowing each other up were laying down their weapons. Political parties that would never have spoken to one another were now in dialogue. The governments of Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland were now, seemingly, committed to finding a way forward for Northern Ireland.

Martin McGuinness was a major player in this process. That is a fact that cannot be denied.

Inasmuch as Martin McGuinness bears considerable responsibility for the violent past of Northern Ireland, he also must be credited and applauded for his role in shaping a new Northern Ireland – a Northern Ireland with bright hope for the future; a Northern Ireland that has no desire to return to its dark past; a Northern Ireland in which those lines of division are no longer as clear as they once were (although they do still very much exist!)

Martin McGuinness has played a role in shaping a Northern Ireland in which the work of reconciliation and building relationships across the lines of division is possible. This reality was exemplified in McGuinness’s personal and professional relationship with Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley when together they held the office First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland. In those days the two of them became affectionately known in the popular media as “The Chuckle Brothers” such was their relationship and public persona. They were diametrically opposed politically and even religiously, but they were able to put their significant differences aside in order to lead the way in the new Northern Ireland that was evolving, and in order to leave a legacy which would be in contrast both their pasts. Together they were able to model something that many people worried was impossible in Northern Ireland: a hopeful relationship which crossed the traditional lines and broke down the barriers of division.

In the new Northern Ireland many things have progressed and wider society is in a much better place than it was 30 years ago. However, for all the good work that has taken place in that time there is still one thing that holds us back: dealing with the past. Martin McGuinness, for all his achievements in peacemaking, was still a man who had blood on his hands and had not been brought to justice. The bereaved families of Northern Ireland’s troubles are still grieving and still have questions as to how and why the things that happened were allowed to happen during those dark days. And this is why the passing of Martin McGuinness today is such a hard event to comment on. In my opinion, the only way the people of Northern Ireland can ultimately move on from the troubles of the past is to work out what forgiveness means for us.

Forgiveness does not mean forgetting the troubles of the past.
Forgiveness does not dishonour the memory of the loved ones we have lost.
Forgiveness does not mean the end of the ongoing pain of loss and bereavement.

But forgiveness does invite us to become reconciled with our lives as they are and with all that has happened in them.
Forgiveness does invite us to live well into our futures – even with the atrocities of our past.
Forgiveness does invite us to break the ties that bind us and stop us from moving forward both as individuals and as a society.

In the various reactions to Martin McGuinness’s passing I have heard today I have been struck by two in particular. First, I heard the Rev. David Latimer, a Presbyterian clergyman from Derry/Londonderry (McGuinness’s home town), being interviewed by William Crawley on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback program. In that short interview Rev. Latimer made reference to his friendship with Martin McGuinness, a friendship developed over the last ten years, which had become something that Rev. Latimer expressed deep gratitude for as he spoke. He told of how he had been able to visit with McGuinness in recent days and express gratitude for the friendship, and even to pray with him. As I listened to Rev. Latimer I found myself deeply moved by the example of reconciliation and, ultimately, forgiveness that he was sharing. I felt myself wanting to be a person who builds deep relationships across lines of division. I felt myself wanting to embody the same hope in my relationships that Rev. Latimer was testifying to as he shared of his friendship with Martin McGuinness. You can listen to the interview here (8:05 minutes into the show).

Second, I heard the former Conservative Party politician, Lord Norman Tebbit, offer his comment on McGuinness’s passing. Lord Tebbit was staying at the Grand Hotel in Brighton when the IRA bombed it in an attempt to murder Margaret Thatcher. As a result of the attack Lord Tebbit’s wife was permanently paralyzed and 5 of his friends and colleagues lost their lives. His response,  understandably, was not as gracious or as praise-filled for Martin McGuinness’s life as that of Rev. Latimer. Tebbit stated that the “world is a sweeter and cleaner place” now that Martin McGuinness is no longer in it. You can read the details of that interview and hear it here

In Rev. Latimer’s response I hear the voice of a Northern Irish Protestant who has lived through the Troubles and all the division of our past, but has become willing to work at forgiveness and reconciliation that is so important for the future of Northern Ireland. I hear a man who has been able to face the realities of ‘the other’s’ violent past and make a decision that it will not be that which defines his relationships or the long term future of our country. I hear a man who is willing to listen to and be in relationship with one of the perpetrators of the atrocities of the Troubles, and model a new hope for a new way forward.

Sadly, I do not hear a similar voice in that of Lord Tebbit. In his voice I hear the voice of a man who may be trapped in personal pain for whom moving forward in reconciliation is profoundly difficult. 

Please understand, I am aware that it is ultimately very easy for me to say all this as one who has not experienced direct loss as a result of the IRA’s terror campaign. Nevertheless, I still believe, wholeheartedly, that the work of forgiveness and reconciliation is the work that Northern Ireland will ultimately have to go through in order to make the distance from its ugly past even greater than it is now.

Today, I mourn the loss of Martin McGuinness. I lament the events of his life which first brought his name in to my recognition – events which permanently stained my home country and scarred the lives of the bereaved and injured. But I also celebrate his life as one which was turned around and transformed. Martin McGuinness was a terrorist, but that is not the whole story of his life. Ultimately, when all was said and done in his life, Martin McGuinness had become a peacemaker of such significance that his work shaped a brighter future for all the people of Northern Ireland. And so inasmuch as I lament his violent past I also celebrate the transformation which took place in his life, and I celebrate the legacy of peace building and reconciliation he now leaves behind.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

2 thoughts on “Martin McGuinness: Some Thoughts on the Passing of a Terrorist Turned Peacemaker

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s