Monday 17 June 2019

Only half the story - The Martin McGuinness I Knew

Biography: The Martin McGuinness I knew, Jude Collins, Mercier Press, paperback, 352 pages, €14.99

North-south divide: McGuinness had become disillusioned with the 'Brits in the south'
North-south divide: McGuinness had become disillusioned with the 'Brits in the south'

Andrew Lynch

A collection of interviews about Martin McGuinness published on the first anniversary of his death never comes close to providing a balanced portrait of the the IRA chief turned peacemaker.

Mary Lou McDonald has a pithy message for anyone who disapproves of her friendship with the late Martin McGuinness.

"Feck them!" she says in her contribution to Jude Collins's new book, a collection of personal reminisces about the former deputy first minister and IRA chief. She also criticises the southern media's "utterly repulsive" treatment of McGuinness during his failed 2011 presidential bid, railing against Miriam O'Callaghan and Vincent Browne while using language such as "hypocrisy... obnoxious... a failure of public service broadcasting."

As McDonald's comments suggest, Martin McGuinness: The Man I Knew will probably be best appreciated by devotees of the Sinn Féin cause. Although Collins's interviewees include politicians, policemen, pundits, priests and Provos, by his own admission he failed to persuade many unionist voices that they should take part.

Sometimes rambling but often revealing, these first-person narratives make for a good, varied read - without ever coming close to providing a balanced portrait of their enigmatic subject.

As usual with anything written about the North, it is helpful to know the author's own perspective. Collins is a blogger, broadcaster and retired lecturer from Omagh with strong nationalist views.

The former DUP MLA Nelson McCausland has called him "one of the most sectarian journalists I have ever come across" and "a nasty little man", while the loyalist leader Willie Frazer once said, "I was struggling to find a term suitable for Jude Collins, but I couldn't so 'prat' will have to do." (These testimonials are proudly displayed on Collins's own website.)

Whatever about his other qualities, Collins is clearly a skilful interviewer who knows how to draw out telling details. The former republican prisoner Eamonn MacDermott recalls McGuinness privately saying of the Good Friday Agreement: "It's crap. But it's the best we can get at the moment."

According to the Irish government strategist Martin Mansergh, his namesake admitted that Sinn Féin's policy on Europe was backward and needed updating. McGuinness's own assistant Aodhán Mac an tSaoir describes how his boss once ended a row with Peter Mandelson by sending the Northern Ireland Secretary a Tommy Fleming cassette.

The socialist campaigner Eamonn McCann remembers him discussing ways of making soda bread: "We talked about whether or not it was blasphemous to put raisins in... he was something of a fundamentalist on the buttermilk question."

Some of the tributes here could most charitably be described as sentimental. David Latimer, a highly respected Presbyterian minister in Derry, declares: "I honestly think one day somebody who controls everything put his hand on Martin's shoulder" and quotes an English woman who thinks God entered her kitchen while she listened to McGuinness's funeral.

On a more temporal level, many of his old comrades praise him as a warm, practical character with remarkably little ego.

For what it is worth, that was my experience, too. As a nervous young reporter in 2001, I was sent to the Falls Road in Belfast to interview Gerry Adams for In Dublin magazine.

While waiting in the reception area at Sinn Féin HQ, some hard men who looked like they'd escaped from Long Kesh that morning began staring me out. McGuinness strolled by, noted my discomfort and sat down to exchange some friendly words - a small, human gesture that I deeply appreciated.

Even a book as sympathetic as this one, however, makes it clear that McGuinness's claim to have left the IRA in 1974 was laughably untrue. Dermot Ahern, who as Minister for Foreign Affairs began negotiating with him in 2004, says: "We would have regarded McGuinness as being the main IRA aspect at the meeting."

The former Sinn Féin chairman Mitchel McLaughlin remembers: "He had a very tight grip on the types of bombing campaigns that were admitted."

"When Martin came into the office and some of those there were IRA guys, you just knew, there was a body language of respect," says the former Derry Journal editor Pat McArt. "You could tell it was a case of, 'whatever Martin says, goes'."

Niall O'Dowd, the Irish Voice founder and confidant of President Bill Clinton (whose funeral eulogy is also included), puts it even more bluntly: "I always thought Martin was the man who ultimately swayed a lot of the decisions with the IRA. I think he was their No 1 guy... people were scared of him."

In the absence of firm evidence about what the 'Butcher of the Bogside' actually did, however, Collins's interviewees tend to fall back on polite euphemisms. "His moral compass may have gotten lost", "I think Martin realised he had been misled," and "There had to be a period... where he had that indifference to human life," are just a few examples.

Gerry Adams claims that he urged his close friend to write a memoir, but it would have contained an almighty hole since McGuinness had no wish to publicly confess any sins either.

"If you're asking me, for example... did I throw a stone that hit a soldier in the head and took blood from him, or did I throw a petrol bomb at a member of the RUC, or did I ever fire a shot that killed a soldier, you know, what's the point?" he challenged the future British foreign secretary Boris Johnson in a 2000 interview. "What's the point of it?"

Perhaps McGuinness secretly worried that the IRA's murderous campaign had been pointless, too. Towards the end, Pat McArt says: "He was a bit disillusioned by what was going on in the south... [it] had become very materialistic and all the rest of it... People in the north wanted to be Irish, it was important to them... whereas the Brits in the south were busy watching Coronation Street and EastEnders."

"Was there a good and a bad Martin McGuinness?" asks Dawn Purvis, ex-leader of the Progressive Unionist Party. "I wouldn't know. I only met the good one."

Collins's project is a valuable contribution to the historical record - but a definitive account of the bad Martin McGuinness will clearly have to be written by someone else.

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