Wednesday 22 November 2017

Radio: A hard man, a friend, a killer and an honest leader

Martin McGuinness. Photo: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Martin McGuinness. Photo: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Martin McGuinness, who died this week, was only 66. That seems very young, partly I think because the Republican has been a feature of public life in Ireland for so long - part of the culture, the iconography, the collective mind - that you assume he must have been older.

Shane Coleman, on Newstalk Breakfast (Mon-Fri 6.30am), called McGuinness "one of the most significant figures in Irish politics for last half-century". That, at least, is a description most of us can agree on, though when it comes to McGuinness, there's more to divide people than bring them to a consensus.

As Arlene Foster said on Morning Ireland (Radio 1, Mon-Fri 7am), "History will record differing views on the role Martin McGuinness played." Well, that's one diplomatic way of putting it.

Shane quoted Tony Blair who, while "very sorry to learn of Martin's death", also pointed out that people can't and shouldn't forget "the bitterness of that conflict". Some victims, he said, "can't forgive and will never forget".

Still, Blair also said, he had "come to know the Martin McGuinness who set aside the armed struggle in favour of making peace…we could never have done it without his leadership and courage". On the same show, former Minister Dermot Ahern credited McGuinness with bringing (his) "generation of young radical people in a certain way…the scene is much better now because of the incredible work of people like him".

Bertie Ahern was conflicted (no pun intended) in his views, thus fairly reflecting the complexity of the Northern situation and McGuinness' life. Our ex-Taoiseach told The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, Mon-Fri 9am), "He was a friend, from 1994 right up until now. I always found him to be a good negotiator, fair, honest in his dealings."

However, Bertie also "never believed" that McGuinness had genuinely left the IRA Army Council, saying, "I don't think there was any doubt about that."

And when Pat contended that, for all McGuinness' "personal affability", his background showed that "when it was called for, he could be a hard man", Bertie responded: "If even 10pc of the stories (about McGuinness) were true, they were horrific."

He added: "Martin wasn't for the faint-hearted." Another diplomatic way of putting things, regardless of where along the political spectrum you stood.

Former Tory Minister Norman Tebbit stands to the right of that spectrum; I can't imagine agreeing with him on very much, if anything. Yet it was hard to blame or begrudge him for the angry words we heard on News at One (Radio 1, Mon-Fri), given what happened to his wife in the 1984 Brighton bombing.

McGuinness was "a multi-murderer" and "coward" who had only become a peacemaker "to save his own skin". Tebbit said he hoped the Sinn Féin man was "parked in a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of hell for the rest of eternity".

Back on Morning Ireland, Sharon Tobin looked back on McGuinness' career and legacy, tracking that quite remarkable journey "from IRA commander to chief negotiator to Deputy First Minister". Much of it we knew, but it was informative and, I felt, fairly even-handed - not such an easy thing to do with someone like McGuinness.

Midway through, ex-Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain recalled a surreal altercation during negotiations on decommissioning: "At one point it got so heated that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness cornered me in a cupboard at Hillsborough Castle, and tried to threaten me that I would get sacked by Tony Blair."

Peter, if that was all you were threatened with, count yourself lucky…

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