| 13.2°C Dublin

'Chuckle Brother' was not a saint, so don't treat him as one

Close

Martin McGuinness announcing his resignation as deputy First Minister

Martin McGuinness announcing his resignation as deputy First Minister

Martin McGuinness announcing his resignation as deputy First Minister

When Ian Paisley died, the tributes to the loathsome old sectarian bigot were suitably nauseating. It was as if history had begun the moment that the DUP leader first shared a stage with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness as part of the "Chuckle Brothers" act, and everything which went before had never happened.

With McGuinness's own retirement from Northern Irish politics confirmed with an announcement that the former Deputy First Minister will not be standing in the forthcoming election triggered by Sinn Fein's collapse of Stormont, a similarly favourable air has hung over the one-time IRA leader's political obituaries.

In both cases, the tributes were too generous. The two men had undoubtedly moved to more moderate positions in later life, but it took them far too long to get there, and they seemed to expect excessive praise at the end for doing what most ordinary people had been doing all their lives - that is, accepting that you can't always get what you want, and there's no shame in not expecting hundreds to die for your so-called principles.

Whilst it was a relief to see both Paisley and McGuinness moving away from the more extremist positions which they'd adopted throughout most of the Troubles, it's also worth pointing out that neither ever moved so far as to catch up with that same mass of ordinary people, who did not need to stop ordering and inciting the deaths of others, because they had never done so in the first place, and who persisted with quiet, dogged decency out of a moral objection to senseless slaughter rather than a strategic analysis that doing so would be better for the cause, be that a united Ireland or the Union.

Martin McGuinness shook the Queen's hand a few times, and he deserves whatever plaudits are due for that gesture; but to the end, he refuses to call the place where he lives "Northern Ireland", and he defiantly refuses to express any regret whatsoever for the misery which he caused.

On radio last week, he was still seeing the Troubles through rose-tinted spectacles, with the IRA taking the role of doughty defenders of nationalists. How the IRA managed to murder more of those oppressed people whilst "freeing" them, than the enemy ever did whilst oppressing them remains a mystery.

As former priest Denis Bradley told Pat Kenny last week, the IRA thought of themselves as soldiers. Perhaps expecting too much introspection is unrealistic. But even soldiers can question the value of what they're doing. To absolve them from all duty to defend their own actions just because they were obeying orders makes no moral sense.

Not all of them were obeying orders. Some of them were giving the orders. Martin McGuinness was one of them, and those who suffered when the IRA had the North at its mercy are entitled to remember. Indeed, it's essential that they do, otherwise all that's left is a Reeling In The Years-style version of the Troubles, in which scenes of slaughter soft fade into a montage of happier scenes, all set to a nostalgic soundtrack. McGuinness did work hard to bed down power sharing, and no assessment of his legacy would be honest or complete without acknowledging that much. As a human being facing into a serious illness, he also deserves sympathy and good wishes as he undergoes prolonged medical treatment.

But the good deeds of an old man do not count more than the evil deeds of a young man just because one stage of his life happened to follow the other, any more than the evil deeds of an old man should be forgiven because he once did some good. Both have their place on the weighing scales.

Under McGuinness's watch, Patsy Gillespie, a civilian chef at an army base, was strapped into a van loaded with explosives and forced to drive it to a checkpoint on the Donegal border whilst his family was held hostage. Despite shouting a warning to the intended victims, five soldiers died alongside Patsy.

Asked in 2013 whether that was murder, McGuinness - who'd already shaken the Queen's hand for the first time the year before, and been widely lauded for it on both sides of the Irish Sea - would only equivocate: "Obviously, people will have their own interpretations of that."

McGuinness is not an evil man, but it doesn't take evil men to do evil things. It does, though, take ruthless men, and he was certainly that. He was ruthless when he was in the IRA; he was equally ruthless on behalf of Sinn Fein.

The ruthlessness was put to different uses. Thank Jehovah for that. But history is no place for hagiography. Praise always has a mercenary end.

Put it this way. When Ian Paisley Jr surprised this week with the fulsomeness of his eulogy to McGuinness's contribution, it should not be forgotten that he added "especially with my father at the beginning of this long journey", or that there is a battle of wills going on inside the DUP right now as those who back First Minister Arlene Foster face down her critics.

A bit more humility from Mrs Foster would have gone a long way, but it's sentimental tosh to imagine that her critics are driven by purely selfless motives either. In praising McGuinness, Ian Jr was also proudly polishing the plaque bearing the Paisley name.

There's something fitting in the way that the memory of Unionist tub-thumpers and fanatical Republican terrorists have been hook and eyed together in this way, because both dutifully played their part in the nightmare; both needed each other to stoke discord and stockpile power.

Increasingly, though, we are turning the famous eulogy from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar on its head. "The evil that men do lives after them," says Antony at the Roman dictator's graveside; "the good is oft interred with their bones".

Now it's the other way round. The evil is discreetly forgotten. Only the good must be remembered, and those who do take the path from conflict to democratic politics are lopsidedly celebrated, however long it took them to do so - whilst, ironically, politicians who never strayed from the path of constitutionalism are despised as time servers, careerists, parasites.

The world sometimes needs the so-called great men of history; but even more it needs the little men who quietly get on with things all along, without wading through a sea of blood first.

Sunday Independent