Bloody road from butcher boy to seeking Presidency
After decades of conflict, including horrific pioneering of 'civilian bombs', McGuinness came in from the cold, writes Jim Cusack
Published 18/09/2011 | 05:00
Derry butcher's boy by trade, presidential hopeful Martin McGuinness rose swiftly to become one of the leading terrorist figures of the 20th Century, a leader whose tactics and strategies were copied by terror groups around the world.
He first came to garda attention in 1973 when he was caught with 250lbs of explosive and 5,000 rounds of ammunition at Swords in Co Dublin. At the time the State was taking a lenient view of the emerging Provisional IRA and he escaped with only a six-month sentence. By that stage he was rapidly rising through the ranks of the terror group. A year earlier, at the age of 21, he was second-in-command of the IRA in Derry and led the IRA in that city on Bloody Sunday.
By the mid-1970s McGuinness, Gerry Adams and their acolytes in the "Northern Command" effectively took control of the IRA when they broke a ceasefire being worked out between the older and mainly Southern-based leadership with the British. The "Northern Command", which McGuinness later headed, became the de facto leadership.
A number of "spectaculars", as the IRA termed them, took place under his command. The biggest single loss suffered by the British Army since the Second World War occurred on August 27, 1979, when 18 soldiers were killed in a double bomb attack at Warrenpoint, Co Down. The same day, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the 79-year-old former viceroy of India, was killed by a bomb on board his boat in Donegal Bay along with his daughter's 83-year-old mother-in-law, Dowager Brabourne, and two boys, Nicholas Knatchbull and Paul Maxwell.
The IRA's campaign lasted from 1969 to 1997. The IRA killed around 2,000 of the total of 3,600 to die. One particular tactic caused more outrage than most. On October 25, 1990, the people of Northern Ireland, who probably thought by then they had seen it all in terms of terrorist violence, woke to hear news of yet another new low. The IRA had forced a Catholic man, Patsy Gillespie, 42, married with three children, to drive a massive lorry bomb to the British Army Border checkpoint at Coshquinn outside Derry where the bomb detonated, killing him and five young soldiers. Mr Gillespie was chosen for his death because he was termed a "collaborator" -- he worked in the canteen in a British Army base in Derry.
It was Northern Ireland's first "human bomb". It was followed by four other apparently similar attacks resulting in the death of one soldier, as it happened, a Catholic from Co Antrim. A 65-year-old Protestant man was forced to drive this bomb to the border checkpoint at Newry that killed Cyril Smyth of the Royal Irish Rangers, who died after clearing his fellow soldiers from the path of the bomb.
Another Omagh man was forced to drive a bomb to a security base as his wife and children were held hostage. A young Co Fermanagh farmer had his elderly father and mother held hostage and told they would be killed. He was bound to the seat of his tractor and a massive bomb put in a trailer which he was forced to drive to another checkpoint at Rosslea. The bomb failed to explode.
The outrage at the human bomb attacks eventually persuaded the IRA leadership to drop the tactic.
The gardai eventually discovered how the IRA had managed to kill Patsy Gillespie and the four young soldiers from the King's Regiment at Coshquinn. They intercepted a lorry that was being prepared for an identical attack. They discovered a fake timing mechanism, a clock with wires coming from it in the passenger seat in the cab. The bomb detonator was actually attached to the vanity light in the cab. When the door was opened, instead of operating the light it set off the bomb's detonator. Patsy Gillespie, gardai surmised, had pulled up at the checkpoint with the clock beside him indicating he still had half an hour or so to raise the alarm and give a warning so all could escape from the bomb. Unknowingly he set it off.
The IRA's human bomb, international experts believe, inspired the Islamist suicide bomb tactic -- Hezbollah in Lebanon, the first group to use suicide bombers worked closely with the IRA. The FARC, terror/narco group in Colombia, also with close links to the IRA, used the tactic to appalling effect.
The "body count" grew, mostly of Protestants -- primarily part-time members of the security forces, but also civilians. A 47-year-old factory worker, James McCormick was shot dead at his home in Bangor, Co Down, and Alice Purvis, also 47 and married, shot dead at her home in Derry. Mrs Purvis' husband was in the British Army.
The IRA also shot dead the prominent Ulster Unionist Party member Trevor Elliott, 38, married with five children, at his home in Keady in south Armagh. Mr Elliott was a sergeant in the Territorial Army, the British Army's reserve wing which never played any security role in Northern Ireland.
The idea was to significantly heighten the crisis in the North with demands for tough security response against the IRA -- which would be action in Catholic nationalist areas. A crackdown in nationalist areas might be accompanied by retaliation by loyalist terror groups and the assassination of Catholic civilians. This, the IRA calculated, would drive nationalists into the arms of Sinn Fein.
However, Sinn Fein's vote continued to float beneath that of the moderate SDLP until the IRA finally moved toward its ceasefires and the target of overtaking the SDLP was finally achieved.
The end for the IRA and the "armed struggle" strategy came on October 23, 1993, when a short-fuse bomb exploded in the fish shop underneath the Ulster Defence Association office on the Shankill Road in Belfast. Eight innocent customers and staff and the IRA bomber were killed.
McGuinness, who had been involved in secret talks with the British since the early 1980s, finally decided that terrorism was no longer an effective path. He re-directed his energies and abilities and became a driving force in the "peace process" under which Sinn Fein and the IRA finally accepted the partition of Ireland and unionists agreed to join him in government in Stormont.