It has not been an easy ten days for the Minister of Education, Martin McGuinness. Even if press reports are true that after a recent army council meeting in Dundalk he was appointed the IRA’s latest chief of staff the position must be something of a poisoned chalice. It shall hardly go unnoticed that another leading republican figure in the peace process was not mentioned as a contender. Too clever perhaps to want to be remembered as the person presiding over the IRA when, by its own logic, the organisation surrendered. ‘Go on Martin you do it. You have more cred with the activists on the streets’.
This is all based of course on the presumption that the IRA will do what even Cathal Goulding never managed to do and which it swore never to do - decommission its weapons. It would never entertain any such thing - even by the year 3000 one Provisional republican commentator assured us - because to do so would mean humiliation and surrender. Only time will tell and for now they remain as good as their word.
More visible than all the allusions to shadowy meetings in Dundalk has been the performance of Martin McGuinness on television. While we can never be certain that he did attend any such army council meeting or indeed if such a meeting even took place, his appearance in our homes via our screens, was there for all to see. It is rare to capture McGuinness being riled. Both more ingenuous than and lacking the pomposity of the party leader, the Derry man has been one of the more consistently good media performers on the Sinn Fein team. Able to improvise on the spot rather than being left aghast and rooted to the chair like some of his colleagues when asked a difficult question the Minister of Education has won admiration from even those opposed to him for his often fluent and facile handling of probes from the blind side.
His party colleague Gerry Adams’ post-‘America under attack’ comment that ‘terrorism’ was ethically indefensible has proved as irresistibly tasty to the media as a juicy bone to a dog. Eager to test the sincerity of such comments some media figures have taken to holding the feet of Sinn Fein leaders to the fire on the matter. It is all too easy to dismiss such a line of questioning as ‘mischievous’ and ‘unhelpful’ to the peace process. Yet many of those who comment on political matters in this part of the world must naturally ponder on the genuineness of the sentiments expressed by republican leaders. The IRA in a recent statement offered sympathy to the relatives of those who died in the US bombings and then went on to deny any involvement in the Colombian affair. Is the denial to be afforded the same weight in the public mind as the sympathy? It brings to mind an IRA statement of a year ago in which the organisation offered sympathy to the family of Real IRA member Jo Jo O’Connor and then went on to deny having killed him.
Confronted with such a seemingly contorted discursive framework people are inclined to ask the awkward question. When Mike Nesbitt did so on UTV’s Insight programme Martin McGuinness responded by saying:
There seems to be this desire among people within the media but also within other political parties, some of whom are opposed to the peace process, to try to undervalue the contribution that republicans have made in building this peace process in Ireland over the course of the last 12 years. And I actually think that people who resort back to asking questions which they probably believe might pitch Sinn Fein spokespersons in a bit of a fix to explain need to reflect on whether or not asking those questions actually damages the peace process, damages the work that we are involved in... There are enough people out there who are rejectionists, on all sides, who are attempting to destroy this process.
Seemingly, only rejectionists and those opposed to the peace process wish to know if there is a moral difference between a human bomb in Derry and one in New York. Those indifferent to the matter, alone are presumably sound and genuinely interested in peace.
When challenged by Noel Thompson on Hearts And Minds to describe as ethically indefensible certain IRA activities over the years Martin McGuinness evasively bobbed and weaved allowing Thompson to score with every punch. The Sinn Fein man resorted to the worn republican refrain that the causes of the conflict were ethically indefensible rather than dealing with actions which were a product of that conflict. But such logic remains blind to the fact that the legitimacy of a grievance is not automatically transferred to the measures employed to redress that grievance. This illuminates that illegitimate space in which ethically indefensible actions are carried out in pursuit of legitimate grievances. It is a space that needs to be closed down by political leaders like Martin McGuinness rather than maintained through fudge.
One reason for such an awkward line of questioning is clearly that if events like Bloody Friday and Enniskillen are less ethically indefensible than the World Trade Centre attacks then the possibility remains that they could occur again.
Martin McGuinness sought not to address the matter in this way and unsuccessfully pitted his wits against Noel Thompson in a bid to run the show by becoming the interviewer. What sort of ‘freedom’ are we heading toward if government ministers feel that the television studio is merely a site for them from which to interrogate anybody who disagrees or who would wish to ask them a difficult question? Emerson once claimed that democracy is government by bullies tempered by editors. What, we may wonder, is the editor of An Phoblacht/Republican News doing to strengthen democracy and temper bullying?