The Blanket

A Decommissioned Provo?
Martin McGuinness: From Guns to Government,
by Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston;
reviewed by Anthony McIntyre • Fortnight May 2002

 

Martin McGuinness did not want this book to come out. He took the unusual step as an education minister in publicly calling for the population not to be educated when he asked people to refrain from assisting the authors in their research. With Sinn Fein, in Francie Molloy's words, already administering 'British rule for the foreseeable future', and the education minister effectively advocating censorship, all that was needed for an epic of truly Kafkaesque proportions was for the Health Minister to give the stamp of approval to cigarette smuggling.

It is probably true to say that fewer people would have bought this book if Martin McGuinness had cooperated. A Derry version of Before The Dawn. What would be the point? George Best not having played for Manchester United is bad enough but Bobby Charlton as well - a step too far. If, at an opportune moment, the Bogside republican feels able to give a no holds barred account of his political journey his work will last for quite some time into the distant future, sure of being read globally.

This takes us to the dilemma facing the construction of work on Provisional republicanism. Martin McGuinness alone could provide the full story on his life but will not. There are others who would like to provide that story without his cooperation but cannot. Faced with that should we settle down for the long haul and wait until the man himself feels unconstrained to the point where he treats us to the full monty? Or is there a case to be made for working on the project now in the hope that no matter how difficult, some record, no matter how incomplete, is an advantage on what exists at present?

Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston's Martin McGuinness From Guns to Government has been criticised for advancing no real thesis apart from perhaps seeking to demonstrate that the Derry man has been a senior IRA leader throughout the past thirty years. But the authors know you would really need to be a particularly naive Siberian supporter of Sinn Fein to believe anything else, and instead have set out to provide an accessible handbook to the career of one of the most influential republicans that this conflict has thrown up.

How successful were they? Chronologically - fairly. Analytically - dubious. A question mark pertaining to the reliability of the chronological narrative comes when the authors explain that at the start of the 1970s the RUC were holding McGuinness for seven days. The comments of a RUC man are used to illustrate this. Yet seven-day detention did not come into effect in the North until December 1974 in the wake of the Birmingham bombings and was not actually used until after the Miami killings in the summer of the following year. Moreover, the awkward joints are all too visible when Gerry Kelly's English bombing campaign is examined. Comments by Marian Price about the attitude of McGuinness towards armed struggle in general are in some way presented as evidence that the Minister of Education threw his energy into this campaign. But without even a close reading it is clear that no such link is established.

Analytically the work is hamstrung by the failure of the authors to get in close to their subject leaving them in a position where they had to rely on accounts from the adversarial camp, be they British, informers or republicans either personally or politically at odds with McGuinness.

There is an attempt to portray McGuinness as a cowardly bully and opportunist, tracing his early life and behaviour in the playground. Piaget may have had something of merit to say here. But it is an area best sidestepped by journalists. In this case it leads to over egging the pudding in the authors' attempts to nail McGuinness. For example, it is alleged that the Derry man selfishly recognised the court in 1976 because he realised that under new legislation he would lose political status and be treated as a criminal. But the charges against McGuinness pre-dated the legislation kicking in which meant, if sentenced, he would never have lost political status.

Much has been made here of the alleged role of McGuinness on Bloody Sunday implying that as a result his evidence at the Saville Inquiry would only undermine its integrity. True or not, what in my view undermined the inquiry was not McGuinness but Mitchel McLaughlin who told it that he didn't know if Martin McGuinness was a member of the IRA at the time. If he can treat the inquiry with such contempt why should the Paras be any different?

From Guns to Government is a reasonable journalistic endeavour. There is never only one history of anything. That is only achieved when alternative histories are suppressed. Ultimately, it is better that this book came out than for no account to exist. But it does underline the difficulty plaguing projects of this nature. The last word on Martin McGuinness may be a long time in coming.

Martin McGuinness: From Guns to Government. By Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston. Mainatream Publishing. Price £15.99.

(This review was originally published in Fortnight under the title "Good Subject, Shame About the Book")

 

 

 

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