Ghosts of past reveal empty rhetoric and the capacity for old hatreds
John-Paul McCarthy considers Martin McGuinness's claims to world-historical respect as a statesman
One of the reasons modern Irish history has such a narrow purchase in international debates is its stubborn circularity.
Sean O Faolain let out a long, erudite moan in his Princeton lectures on the "Vanishing Hero" in the Fifties when considering the way Irish intellectual life was stranded between "the recurrent denial, the recurrent flight, and the smashing of the chandelier to the old strangled cry of, 'With me all or not at all'." He never met Martin McGuinness, but he certainly saw him coming.
Consider the predictability of McGuinness's main argument: any nationalist who has grasped the paw of Paisley must be welcomed with open arms in any other national office. This argument asks us to take our presidential standards from the Big Man, and allow the harlequin pastor a kind of moral veto over the Republic's elections.
Paisley's political standards are best summarised as variable, considering his vertiginous dalliances over the years with Vanguard, Northern Ireland independence and even with the principle of a united Ireland. It's a fair bet that his embrace of McGuinness had little to do with his belief that he was a Hibernian Mandela, and more with the pastor's clear-eyed appreciation that Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell would impose another Anglo-Irish Agreement if power-sharing failed.
McGuinness's other rhetorical gambit is his insistence that the Republic cannot question his morals without casting similar aspersions on sundry historical titans, and without also sawing off the historical bough that sustains their own state.
McGuinness is drawing here on the work of his former colleague Danny Morrison, especially his essay The Good Old IRA from 1985. Morrison showed the increasing futility of most attempts to distinguish the violence of the 1919-23 period from that of the later PIRA campaign.
He dealt briskly with the idea that the 1918 general election can be used to shame the resolutely anti-majoritarian PIRA campaign under McGuinness, noting legitimately enough that "nobody [in 1918] was asked to vote for war", though war came anyway.
There were more than enough grisly precedents from 1919-23 to sustain Morrison's belief that PIRA's later campaign retained the essence, if not quite the form, of Dan Breen's dirty war against Catholic policemen.
Many commentators in the Republic are now scrambling to close off these 1919-23 precedents. Those who fear McGuinness's election as President should concede for the sake of argument that he is some kind of heir to the founding generation.
He too speaks their crude language of "spies", "West Brits" and "national self-determination", and his comrades drank deeply in anti-treaty polemic. Having conceded McGuinness's claim to be in external association, so to speak, with the post-1916 generation, we can see his regressive analysis more clearly.
Could the first presidential campaign of the IMF era muster no finer applicant than an unrepentant former terrorist commander whose claim to preferment rests on his mastery of imagery drawn from a distant era dominated by influenza epidemics, economic protectionism and sectarian polarisation?
Would any other European head of state settle for an organising theme as vapid as "Forward to 1916"?
To ponder the intellectual vacuity of McGuinness's platform is to come face to face once again with O Faolain's argument that large parts of Irish cultural life were maimed by what he called "the vanity of an old race, the gnawing sense of old defeat and the same capacity for intense hatred".
And 'defeat' is central to McGuinness's psychology.
For all his carefully honed rhetorical confidence, he is the torch-bearer for a party whose political analysis was dismantled brick by brick under the Good Friday Agreement, a party that was left at the end to operate a cabinet and an assembly it did not want. (The amnesty the party secured for its imprisoned comrades just about hid its shame in the negotiations.)
This is the prism through which we must screen McGuinness's claims to world-historical respect as a statesman, claims that were repeated by TCD's Micheal O Siochru on The Frontline show last week during his riff on McGuinness's "controversial" past. His paranoia about John Bull's stubborn grip on sections of the Dublin media to one side, we can see that McGuinness's campaign boils down to the following claims:
Vote for me because Paisley opened the cabinet room to
my colleagues rather than see the Irish Government install a Minister for Northern Ireland at the Maryfield Secretariat.
Vote for me because I'm no worse than Frank Aiken [architect of a sectarian massacre at Altnaveigh in 1922] or Eoin O'Duffy [architect of similar atrocities in Monaghan].
And vote for me because, just like the former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, I am sure to interpret the inevitable moral reckoning as attempted "demonisation".
As a condensed presidential stump speech, this may lack the lustre of Mrs Robinson's, "the hand that rocked the cradle rocked the system", but it tells us all we need to know about a candidate who brought such universal tragedy into Irish lives for 30 years.
JP McCarthy writes for 'Beo' magazine