Taming of the Bogside hawk

Martin McGuinness is the custodian of the Irish republican conscience - and chief negotiator with British ministers. David McKittrick profiles him
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The Independent Online
The last working day in Martin McGuinness's life that had any semblance of normality was 8 August 1971. He was working in his home city of Londonderry at the time, helping out with the pre-packed bacon in Doherty's butchers. The next day a wave of arrests heralded the introduction of internment without trial, and soon large-scale gun battles broke out. McGuinness never went back to the bacon counter, instead becoming a full- time street fighter. This week, he became the first IRA representative to meet a British government minister for 23 years.

For nearly a quarter of a century McGuinness has been regarded as personifying the leadership of the IRA: an implacable, relentless, ruthless, ingenious opponent of the British presence in Ireland; he is a man who will never, ever accept that that presence could be legitimate.

Gerry Adams stands at the head of the republican movement, acting as its leader and chief strategist. Martin McGuinness, though he modestly holds no title other than a member of Sinn Fein's executive, has been the movement's primary militarist and chief negotiator, and Adams's indispensable partner. Adams may have been the principal architect of the IRA ceasefire, but it is almost certainly true that the cessation would not have come about without McGuinness's wholehearted support.

Many in this profoundly militaristic movement, while greatly admiring Adams, have always kept a wary eye on him. He was, they thought, maybe a little bit too much of a politician, a little too interested in dialogue, a little bit too prepared to compromise. But the presence at his side of Martin McGuinness has served to quell those fears. The Derry man's reputation as the hardline guarantor of the movement, the man who would never sell out the republican cause, reassured almost all doubters.

Today, he denies ever having been an IRA member, but then he would say that: any such admission would render him liable to prosecution. He was ready enough, in the early Seventies, to declare that he was proud to be an IRA volunteer. Certainly, his militarist's credentials are impeccable, and his personal style is legendarily direct. Yet there is more to him than that. McGuinness is not just a straightforward hawk.

At a very early stage, the IRA recognised McGuinness's leadership potential. He joined in 1971, after spending some frustrating months in another republican group, which proved not militant enough for his taste. By July 1972 he had, as they say in the IRA, "big stripes", and was important enough to be included in the delegation flown secretly to London to see William Whitelaw, the new Northern Ireland Secretary, for exploratory talks. He was 22 at the time: he and Gerry Adams, two years his senior, were the youngest of the group.

After the failure of the meeting, he was soon on the run again, the newspapers describing him as one of Northern Ireland's most wanted men. He was, he said, "fired at by the British Army on countless occasions". He was lucky to survive that period: many of his IRA associates did not. In more recent years, loyalists laid several plans to kill him.

His legendary commitment to the campaign of violence was all the more surprising in that he did not come from a family with a republican history: his mother fretted that he was losing out on his apprenticeship as a butcher. But he was from the Bogside, and he had been radicalised by the denial of civil rights. In his words: "When people marched they were attacked and beaten by the RUC, who were acting at the behest of the Unionists. We saw our fathers and mothers humiliated like that, and we were not prepared to take it any more. Things changed. People decided they would struggle against what was wrong in this country."

Eventually McGuinness was arrested in the Republic, and served a couple of short jail sentences for IRA membership.

In the latter part of the Seventies, he and Adams were the two most prominent members of a group of northern militants who overthrew the southern-based old guard, headed by Ruairi O Bradaigh. They argued that the IRA was almost on its knees, and that in 1974-75 the old leadership had been tricked and fooled by the British into declaring what McGuinness described as a disastrous ceasefire.

They accused the old leaders of seeking unrealistic short cuts, declared that talk of early British withdrawal was a mirage, and impressed on their supporters that the only way to get the British out was by stepping up the war. The war was indeed stepped up, and after the 1981 hunger strikes Sinn Fein was built up into a powerful political adjunct.

O Bradaigh broke with the Adams-McGuinness faction in 1986, warning that it was moving inexorably into politics. At that year's Sinn Fein conference McGuinness made a decisive intervention, pouring scorn on the O Bradaigh faction: "They tell you it is inevitable that the war against British rule will be run down. They deliberately infer that the present leadership of Sinn Fein and the IRA are intent on edging the republican movement on to a constitutional path. Shame, shame, shame. Don't walk away from the struggle. We will lead you to the Republic."

Today O Bradaigh is claiming that his warnings have been vindicated. The same men who accused him of an ill-judged ceasefire have themselves called not just a temporary halt but a permanent cessation. Many republicans have carefully considered O Bradaigh's arguments: the fact that they have not won widespread support is due in large measure to the trust reposed in McGuinness.

Adams and McGuinness are committed to negotiation, with McGuinness developing into the chief negotiator. He hasshown a pragmatic streak that was not evident in his early days on the streets of Derry. Perhaps he has wanted to ensure that his four children have a better and less eventful life than his own.

The paradox and the conundrum is that Martin McGuinness, the custodian of the republican conscience, the man who will never accept the British presence, has now been up to Stormont half a dozen times. He knows the facts of political life: and the fact is that a united Ireland is not on the horizon.

He is astute enough to see that the rest of nationalist Ireland has accepted that Unionist consent is a prerequisite for a united Ireland, and that this is unlikely, to say the least, to be forthcoming in the foreseeable future. Unless he is deluding himself, therefore, he must know the course on which he has embarked is destined to end in a settlement based on compromise rather than victory.

On the old purist republican reading, McGuinness, with Adams, stopped the war short of victory. On another, they eventually came to see that the IRA campaign, while it shook these islands for a quarter of a century, had run its course and was not advancing their aims.

If the second reading is correct, then Martin McGuinness is now, after all his years at war, committed to using his formidable reputation and talents to lead his people towards a peaceful path. The man who was once the guarantor of the armed struggle may have become a guarantor of peace.