Saturday 21 April 2018

The remarkable transformation of McGuinness: From ruthless paramilitary to cuddly peacemaker

Victim number 2,299: Joanne Mathers, who was shot in 1981, with her son shane
Victim number 2,299: Joanne Mathers, who was shot in 1981, with her son shane
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

In the eulogies to Martin McGuinness this week, there was little mention of the incendiary bomb in the La Mon hotel that killed 12 civilians, and propelled him to the top in the IRA.

The IRA planted a blast bomb attached to a can of petrol on a windowsill in the hotel near Belfast in February 1978.

After inadequate warnings, the bomb went off, showering the function room with a cascade of flaming petrol, and incinerating the hotel.

The victims, seven of whom were women, were all Protestants, and all were attending the annual dinner dance of the Irish Collie Club.

There is common agreement among historians of the Troubles that Gerry Adams was chief of staff of the IRA at the time of the La Mon attack - and McGuinness head of Northern command.

But the arrest of Adams in the wake of the attack on a charge of membership of the IRA led to his replacement as chief of staff by McGuinness (Adams was eventually released without charge).

At the age of 27, McGuinness had reached the pinnacle in the paramilitary group.

He was married with young children, and on the birth cert of one of them he put down his occupation as "sales assistant - furniture".

He had joined the Provisional IRA at the start of the decade in Derry, driven by a sense of grievance at decades of Unionist discrimination, and a blundering and overly aggressive response to Catholic unrest by trigger-happy British troops.

But incidents such as the La Mon bombing showed that by the second half of the decade, the IRA's armed campaign was descending into nihilistic barbarism.

The tough face presented by McGuinness during the 1970s was in stark contrast to that of the cuddly smiling elder statesman, chuckling with Ian Paisley, in later years. He seemed to dismiss casually concern about civilian casualties, telling an American journalist earlier in the decade: "We've always given ample warnings. Anybody hurt was hurt through their own fault: being too nosy, sticking around the place where the bomb was after they were told to get clear."

It is this ruthless insensitivity that makes his later transformation into a peacemaker all the more remarkable.

McGuinness is believed to have served as IRA chief of staff for four years from February 1978. During that period, the IRA killed over 300 people.

He had already streamlined the organisation as head of Northern Command, introducing a cellular structure to reduce risk of arrests, and reducing the number of volunteers on active service to 300.

Many of the victims of the IRA when he was chief of staff were British soldiers, RUC men or prison officers. But many civilians were also killed on his watch.

In the annals of the Northern Troubles, Joanne Mathers is listed as victim number 2,299. The 29-year-old mother, originally from Co Donegal, was shot through the neck by the IRA as she collected census forms on a housing estate in Derry on a spring day in 1981. The IRA, under the command of McGuinness, was boycotting the census.

With McGuinness at the helm, IRA violence spilled over into the South.

Most Sinn Féin members have probably never heard of Eamon Ryan, a young Dublin civil servant from the Department of Finance.

He was shot dead by the IRA in the AIB Bank in Tramore, Co Waterford, on August 7, 1979 - with his three-year-old son Peter next to him.

The 32-year-old father happened to be in the way as the gang robbed the bank in the seaside resort.

Mountbatten killing

As chief of staff, McGuinness is said to have sanctioned the most high-profile killing of the Troubles, the murder of Queen Elizabeth's cousin Lord Mountbatten at Mullaghmore, Co Sligo.

It was in the same month as Eamon Ryan's murder.

McGuinness is reported to have given his assent to the killing after the victory of Margaret Thatcher in that year's general election. The bomb planted on Mountbatten's boat near his home at Classiebawn Castle did not just kill Mountbatten. It also resulted in the deaths of his 14-year-old grandson Nicholas Knatchbull, 82-year-old Baroness Brabourne, and 15-year-old Paul Maxwell, a boy from Fermanagh, who was working on the boat.

The supremacy of McGuinness as a paramilitary commander was confirmed later in the day when the IRA killed 18 British troops at Warrenpoint.

Tommy McMahon served 19 years in prison for the murder of Mountbatten, and when he was released in October 1998, McGuinness applauded and cheered him at a party in a Louth hotel.

It was the killing of Mountbatten that made his meeting with Queen Elizabeth in 2014 especially poignant.

He said of their encounter: "She had many reasons not to meet me, and me her, but I think we've risen above that and seen the contribution that these big acts of reconciliation can have."

McGuinness is said to have been replaced as IRA chief of staff when he was elected to the Northern Assembly in 1982, but few doubt that he continued to have a leading military role right up to the Good Friday agreement and beyond.

A long path to peace

As Sinn Féin started to show more interest in party politics, McGuinness maintained a hardline public stance: "We don't believe that winning elections and winning any amount of votes will bring freedom. At the end of the day it will be the cutting edge of the IRA which will bring freedom."

McGuinness takes to his grave many secrets including his knowledge of the organisation of the Enniskillen bombing which killed 11 Protestants attending a Remembrance Day service in 1987.

There has been much speculation that McGuinness authorised the bombing. But he dismissed this as "securocrat fantasy".

The path to peace appears to have been a long one rather than a Road to Damascus conversion.

According to one account this week, he expressed doubts in the late 1980s to a Derry brigade commander about whether the campaign really was worth it.

By the early 1990s, it occurred to British top brass that they could not defeat the IRA militarily. And a similar thought seems to have occurred to McGuinness.

As he told the journalist Eamonn Mallie, the question also had to be asked whether the IRA could defeat the British.

He realised that it was time to go the negotiating table and seek peace rather than continue a conflict that could go on indefinitely.

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