The Blanket

Derry's Papa Doc
Martin McGuinness: From Guns to Government,
by Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston;
reviewed by Deaglán Ó Donghaile

 

In August 1996, Yasser Arafat decided that he could not be criticised. To stop any criticism of his government, the Palestinian Minister of Information, Abd Rabbo, sent policemen to all of the bookshops in Gaza and the West Bank. They confiscated every single copy of any books written by Edward Said that those bookshops happened to stock. Two weeks later, writing in the London Review of Books, Said protested: "I am now banned in Palestine for having dared to speak against our own Papa Doc." Arafat's move appeared desperate and showed the world that, instead of providing Palestinians with an enlightened government, the Middle East peace process had installed a regime that stank of feudal authoritarianism. Closer to home, on August 21st this year, the Stormont education minister, Martin McGuinness, released a statement while he was on holiday, ordering people not to help Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston write a biography of him. He declared: "I have to point out that those purporting to be writing autobiographical accounts of my life are doing so without my co-operation or approval." The education minister's inability to distinguish between biography and autobiography aside, his statement did point to a much more disturbing feature of political life under Stormont. In trying to stop this book from being written McGuinness appealed to one of the unwritten rules that make politics in the six counties so secretive and so dangerous - he appealed to the old republican policy of secrecy that he and his party have manipulated and transformed into a semi-official political culture that is designed to stop people from criticising "the leadership". But his warning was ignored and this book examines the secret history behind the education minister, restoring, for the historical record, some of the things that he would rather make sure people do not know about.

In an interview with the authors of this book, Dennis Bradley commented on the breakdown of the I.R.A.'s 1974 ceasefire, stating: "I think the republican movement settled in the Good Friday Agreement for the same things that were achievable in 1974. The difference between 1974 and the Good Friday Agreement was 20 years of violence and so many people dead in between." Bradley's opinion of what the republican struggle actually achieved in the end is also a reflection upon the career of Martin McGuinness, who, along with Gerry Adams, brought Sinn Féin and the Provisional I.R.A. away from revolutionary politics towards reformism. This culminated in Sinn Féin's holding two ministries at Stormont and their sitting in government there under the Union Jack. This transformation did not happen overnight, however, and is, interestingly, reflected through the authors' use of quotations from the speeches and interviews given by McGuinness down the years, beginning with hair-raising statements justifying the killing of British soldiers and ending with the Orwellian doublespeak of the peace process that became the official language of Sinn Féin. Gems from the 1970s, such as "This is a war to the end," and "I am a member of the Derry Brigade of the I.R.A. and very proud of it" are juxtaposed with his later declarations, including the often-repeated denial of I.R.A. membership, made in 1992 - "I have never said that I was in the I.R.A. I am not a member of the I.R.A. I was a republican activist in Free Derry." If anybody wants to find out about the truth, then they certainly won't learn too much from the Stormont education minister.

This book also explodes some of the popular myths surrounding McGuinness. For example, he did not come from a republican family - Willie Breslin, a teacher and member of the Derry Labour Party knew the family as "good catholic people who probably would have voted nationalist and when John Hume came along they probably would have voted for him." Behind another myth, that of the fearless boy warrior, there was another, less heroic reality: as one childhood friend noted of the young McGuinness, "If anybody so much as looked crooked at Martin, he ran in to get Tom (his older brother) out to fight them for him." Another anecdote points out how once, when an opponent lay safely on the ground after being hit by other youths, the teenage McGuinness kicked him while he was down.

For somebody whose party is so fond of having people attacked in their homes, McGuinness is very careful to keep trouble away from his own doorstep. His adoption of the role of policeman almost cost him dearly when, during the 1974 ceasefire, he ordered the disarming of an I.N.L.A. unit in Derry City on its way to attack the British army. The next day two I.N.L.A. men went to the local Sinn Féin "incident centre" and demanded a meeting with McGuinness. When he arrived one of the men, whose brother was present at the previous day's stand off, put a gun to the head of an I.R.A. man, told McGuinness to sit down, pointed the gun at him and warned him to leave his brother alone. "How could these people claim to be republicans when they were going to shoot other republicans for shooting soldiers?" the I.N.L.A. man asks. McGuinness also ordered Raymond McCartney to carry out an attack on Patsy O'Hara, the I.N.L.A. member who died on hunger strike in 1981, in which he was very badly beaten. It seems then, in Derry at least, that the phenomenon of so-called "punishment beatings" actually originated in this brutal method of political control. These incidents have a deep significance within the history of Derry republicanism because they show how McGuinness first used the political space provided by an I.R.A. ceasefire to install his reputation as an authoritarian. Although he backed down on the first occasion, the incident shows that he viewed any kind of opposition to his authority from within his own community far more fiercely than he did the activities of the British army. Later on, when Sinn Féin's war was over, he dealt just as ruthlessly with people who criticised him or presented any kind of alternative to his politics. As one of those interviewed states, this was possible because "McGuinness and some of his henchmen are a protected species, they are safe from arrest as long as they do not attack the British forces or the loyalists. It is the price our community pays for the peace process."

The closing chapter of the book notes that a "smoke-screen" still lingers over Bloody Sunday and the inquiry being held in Derry: "Several I.R.A. members who had been active at the time of Bloody Sunday were 'visited' after news broke that McGuinness had decided to give evidence. After being politely asked if they intended to follow McGuinness' example, any who said they did were bluntly warned not to proceed." As the chapter "Bloody Sunday" points out, the truth about what happened in Derry on 30 January, 1972, has not yet been told. If McGuinness has his way, it might never be told. Although Martin McGuinness and Sinn Féin cannot close down bookshops, as Arafat has done in Palestine, their reaction to the publication of this book shows that they do believe that they can close down people's minds and deprive them of the freedom to speak and to think for themselves. This repression is an insidious version of that employed by the Palestinian regime because it attempts to impose self-censorship on anybody who might be thinking about co-operating with authors by telling their own stories about what has happened in Derry over the past thirty years. But they failed to stop this book from being published and the story that it tells has created space within which more criticism of Martin McGuinness and his authoritarian politics can take place. We need more books like this one because politicians like Derry's Papa Doc should not have the power to tell people who they can or cannot talk to, or what they can or cannot read. When the day does arrive when people do keep quiet, obey Martin McGuinness' warnings and become too afraid to tell the truth, then that will be the day when Sinn Féin will have the power to take away our books.

 

 

 

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