Martin McGuinness – a hard man to replace.


By Hugh Vaughan

The peaceful night that round me flows,
Breaks through your iron prison doors,
Free through the world your spirit goes,
Forbidden hands are clasping yours.
The wind is our confederate,
The night has left her doors ajar,
We meet beyond earth’s barred gate,
Where all the world’s wild Rebels are.

(Comrades Eva Gore-Booth).

Eva Gore-Booth, poet and activist, was the sister of Constance Markievicz. Both from privileged backgrounds, Constance became a revolutionary nationalist while Eva chose pacifism and social reform. Initially, Martin McGuinness, a working-class boy from Derry, chose the revolutionary path before committing himself to social reform.

Was he the most important leader of contemporary Ireland? Two polar opposites, Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley formed a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. A journey – now made into a film – many felt impossible yet McGuinness had the potential of becoming the President of Ireland, if not in the last election, then the next. Unfortunately, it was not to be. He passed away on 21 March 2017 in his native city.

images-5I watched his televised funeral in St. Columba’s Church, Long Tower, Derry, a church I know well. I did not know him but like Martin, I went to the Christian Brothers School; perhaps he too, on a Thursday, once a month, we went to that chapel for confessions.

He is buried in the City Cemetery where I have many close relatives buried, including my Great-grandfather, Hugh McMahon, who in the early 1920s organised the local dock workers to protect the Long Tower Church from marauding Protestant rioters. Hugh lived opposite the Protestant St Columb’s Cathedral within the 17th Century walls of Derry and through a close friendship with the minister there, he allowed his home to become a cloakroom for the marching Orangemen, parading to the church. His daughter, Priscilla told me the coats even had wallets in them.

Martin McGuinness, also formed close friendships with the Protestant clergy, in particular the Rev David Latimer’s “unbelievable friendship”, who was convinced that the Republican leader underwent a radical change and fully embraced peace and reconciliation.

My wife lived in the same street as Martin McGuinness, and he was often seen armed, driving around with his fellow volunteers. Garbhan Downey, a Derry writer ref

Ultimately Mr McGuinness, for all the flaws of youth, was the embodiment of our fight against injustice. He was the measure of our determination. Whereas John Hume epitomised our yearning for agreement, partnership and mutual compassion, Mr McGuinness symbolised our resistance and defiance. And at times, unfortunately, it was necessary to resist and defy – even if we disputed or abhorred the methods. It is easy to forget today the institutional prejudice, discrimination and outright anti-Catholic hatred that existed in the North before Civil Rights. Just as it is easy to forget the extreme vulnerability of the Catholic population. There was a very specific context behind the growth of the IRA, which far too many revisionist commentators are still unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge.

Some say, it’s not where you start, but where you finish. Martin McGuinness was a friend of Brendan Duddy, the back-channel intermediary between the IRA and the British Government. For weeks in 1981, he was billeted on a couch in Brendan Duddy’s study, while both he and the mediator engaged in hour-by-hour telephone negotiations with the British to revive and reinforce the Christmas 1980 deal that the Northern IreIand Government, and the Prison Service, had reneged on.



Nelson Mandela’s words reflect McGuinness’s move to that ‘brighter shared living space’:

There are times a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people the right way.

A measure of the faith and trust that rank-and-file IRA men and women had in him is reflected in the sentiment Peter Taylor heard from many of them that ‘if it’s good enough for Martin, it’s good enough for us.’ Such sentiments showed the esteem in which he was held as IRA leader. Peter Taylor was the BBC reporter who had revealed Brendan Duddy as the back-channel intermediatory. Taylor was present at a candle-lit procession that wound its way to a church after Bloody Sunday, when British paratroopers shot dead 13 civil rights marchers in the Bogside of Derry. As he stood where the coffins of the dead were lying, he was advised by the leading nationalist politician, John Hume, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, to keep an eye on one of the mourners, Martin McGuinness.

McGuinness felt the armed struggle had run its course and while the might of the British Army could not crush the IRA, nor could the latter force the British out of Northern Ireland by bloody violence. Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Féin and he felt that sharing power in Northern Ireland was the way forward, albeit temporally in their holy grail objective of a United Ireland. Taylor posits McGuinness in terms of other freedom fighters who ended up as statesmen – a journey similar to those previously made by other historical figures from Menachem Begin to Jomo Kenyatta and Nelson Mandela. For others, many of those who suffered from IRA violence, he was a terrorist.

John Cushnahan, a former Alliance leader who grew up in a deprived area of the Falls Road, said eulogies about how the Sinn Féin politician’s background had led him to join the paramiltary organisation ‘

did not provide any moral justification for the violent path he chose to follow. I lived in west Belfast through the 1960s and early 1970s when the Troubles began. I was involved in the campaign for civil rights.

Because of his IRA past, Martin McGuinness remains a controversial figure. There are still some Unionists who would take issue with the tribute paid by Ian Paisley’s son who said that by working with his father, he had ‘saved lives’ and ‘made countless lives better’. When Sinn Féin and Ian Paisley’s DUP became the largest parties in their respective communities in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the terms of that deal meant that they had to agree on how to share power in Northern Ireland. Thus, a former IRA commander and a former firebrand preacher now jointly led the Northern Ireland government. The media had a field day, dubbing the pairing the Chuckle Brothers, as a distinct camaraderie was displayed by them. It was known that they shared prayers together and Ian Paisley’s widow stayed in touch with McGuinness, especially during his later illness.images-8.jpg

A deal between the two adversaries would have been harder to sell to their respective constituencies, and it was far better to have the media mock them than to pull at the loose threads of the political accord they had made. (That accord is threadbare at the moment – mid-April 2017 – as the two parties fail to form a government.) Their past actions had, understandably, seen them portrayed as wholly serious individuals, but this masked the streak of humour which McGuinness and the man he called ‘Big Ian‘ clearly shared.

Sean O’Callaghan, a former Southern Ireland IRA Commander commented:

Maybe him and Ian did have some kind of chemistry, a religious or spiritual aspect. But I think most importantly, the leadership knew that being seen to work the institutions in Northern Ireland, even to take some shit from the DUP was the best option looking south and portray yourself in the Republic as fit for government in Dublin. McGuinness had the discipline and the authority to hold the line on that.

Their bond was most evident when Paisley retired. To mark the occasion, McGuinness presented him with a self-penned poem inspired by the author’s passion for fly-fishing. Fr McCanney, his close friend, described McGuinness as a complex man. His love for fly-fishing, helped when he was off-duty; my nephew often accompanied him and his family on those trips.images-7.jpg

McGuinness’s handshake with the Queen in 2012 was seen as another crucial milestone in the peace process – the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten, was killed by the IRA in 1979. But perhaps more powerful than McGuinness’ meeting with the Queen was the moment in 2009 when he branded republican dissidents as “traitors to Ireland” after they killed a police officer. Shaking hands with the Queen was a potent symbol of peace-making; McGuinness’s condemnation of dissident violence had much greater practical effect. His unambiguous, impassioned statement helped protect the lives of all police officers, but particularly Catholics, whom dissidents cynically targeted as a way of undermining the transformation of policing achieved as part of the Good Friday Agreement. He faced numerous death threats afterwards, so it may also have been one of his bravest statements.

His stature was reflected in the large number of dignitaries that attended his funeral, including Taoiseach Enda Kenny, former US President Bill Clinton, President Michael D Higgins, former Taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, Northern Secretary James Brokenshire, John Hume and PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton, as well as Northern Ireland’s former first ministers Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson.


‘After all the breath he expended cursing the British, he worked with two prime ministers and shook hands with the Queen,’ said Mr Clinton in his eulogy. Mr Clinton told the 1,500 people packed into Saint Columba’s Church that Mr McGuinness ‘persevered and he prevailed, he risked the wrath of his comrades and rejection of his adversaries. If you really came here to celebrate his life and honour the contribution of the last chapter of it, you have to finish his work.’

He said he treasured every encounter he had with Mr McGuinness and that his late friend could eulogise far better than hr. He said Mr McGuinness would sum up his life quickly by saying ‘I fought. I made peace. I made politics’.

He continued,

The presence of those political rivals and opponents among you, who have come to pay their respects this afternoon, is the most eloquent testimony to the memory of Martin McGuinness. When you seek his monument, you – by your presence – are his monument.

Hugh McMahon Vaughan was born in Strabane, and raised in Derry, Northern Ireland, and currently lives in Melbourne, lecturing in Information Systems.  He has written two books: A Bump on the Road and Cillefoyle Park, both creative memoirs, focusing on living in the North West of Ireland during the Troubles.