Friday 24 November 2017

Exit of long-serving leader leaves vacuum as Brexit talks start

British Prime Minister Theresa May with Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness at Stormont Castle in Belfast last July Photo: Reuters
British Prime Minister Theresa May with Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness at Stormont Castle in Belfast last July Photo: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

Martin McGuinness will be missed and his departure could not have come at a worse time for the North and indeed for the rest of the island.

As the Brexit process is about to move into high gear, there is the risk of a dangerous political vacuum.

His departure will surely be followed before long by the retirement, signalled in principle last September, of Gerry Adams, leaving big challenges for Sinn Féin.

For the past fortnight it was clear that his health was a big issue for Mr McGuinness and crucial to his decision to leave at this juncture.

His move to effectively collapse the North's power-sharing administration 11 days ago was all about the lack of trust between the two party's heading the Belfast government. But watch for increasing claims from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) side that the Sinn Féin leader's big health problems were a big factor in the move towards that collapse.

In what will be an acrimonious campaign, ahead of voting on March 2, no holds - not even a person's health - will be barred from the grim contest.

Mr McGuinness was adamant, in talking to RTÉ's Tommie Gorman, that he will leave the assessment of his legacy to the historians of various political backgrounds and none.

For this writer the legacy of his earlier life as an IRA kingpin was pretty grim and very questionable.

Many of Martin McGuinness's actions were wrong then and are still wrong today.

We must also acknowledge the brutality and crass stupidity of the RUC and British forces who helped the young Martin McGuinness on his erroneous path.

But we must also acknowledge the man's later contribution to taking the Republican movement through phases of armed action, into some political action, onward towards armed peace, and finally towards putting arms beyond use. There were glitches and ambiguities aplenty along the prolonged journey.

Mr McGuinness's IRA credibility cut both ways in the progress of that journey. Going back to 1986, his voice was strong and effective in helping deliver Sinn Féin's end to abstention from Leinster House.

His speech to delegates in the Mansion House, in Dublin, assuring there would be no IRA split, was seen as a man speaking for the IRA.

That was a milestone along the party's dual strategy of doing constitutional politics, while reserving the right to resort to violence. But it was that long goodbye to the right to violence which always raised doubts about his status as a politician who could commit to political action alone.

When he became education minister, he appeared to unionists as the personification of the IRA-Sinn Féin link. But even his most grudging critics must own to his growing stature from that period onwards.

His ability to make terms with DUP founder and the most obdurate Unionist, Ian Paisley, astonished many but also gladdened those who just wanted to see the violent conflict, which killed 3,600 people, end.

Even hostile historians examining the period from May 2007 until the present, when the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin shared power, will quite likely give a positive assessment of Mr McGuinness's role. The rest of us will look forward with some trepidation.

Irish Independent

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