Martin McGuinness followed along the familiar trail of so many enemies of Britain’s weary colonial history. A “super-terrorist” becomes a super-statesman. Jomo Kenyatta comes to mind. And Archbishop Makarios. And of course, Menachem Begin. With blood on their hands, they pass through that mist of nobility bestowed by colonial power and former rulers – and re-emerge as statesmen of compromise, eloquence, even humour.
I’ve never been sure they really changed that much. Begin blew up the King David Hotel, murdered two British army sergeants because the Brits were executing Irgun fighters, and became Prime Minister of Israel. He signed a peace agreement with Egypt, met Margaret Thatcher – then invaded Lebanon in 1982: 17,000 died.
In fact, most of these folk recalled their past with a certain amount of caution. “Father of the Nation”, they liked to be called – although that hardly applied to McGuinness. Michael Collins went through a similar transmogrification. There he was, killing Churchill’s Cairo Gang intelligence men in Dublin and then sitting in Downing Street with Lloyd George and Churchill himself, who told of meeting Collins whose hands had “touched directly the springs of terrible deeds”. Doubtless, he would have said the same of McGuinness.
In 1972 I saw him first, standing beside a table on the Creggan – already no-go Derry after Bloody Sunday – for a frantic press conference. They said he was the IRA commander in Derry (he was actually number two), but he was a rather frightening young man, 22 at the time, high cheekbones, fluffy, curly hair, red-faced, sharp, narrow eyes, unsmiling. A very dangerous man, I thought at the time – to his enemies, at least. There was a rifle in the room, though I don’t think he touched it. People later said it was a Kalashnikov, but there weren’t many AKs around at the time and I rather think it was an old American Garand.
The British were claiming at the time that McGuinness was the most wanted man in Derry or Northern Ireland or all of Ireland – but they did that on a regular basis to all their most tenacious enemies. That’s what they once called Begin. That’s what they said about Collins in the early 1920s, who passed through that infamous mist of nobility when he signed the grim Treaty which the Brits had prepared for him, Griffith and the others. It cost him his life, of course, so he never travelled to Buckingham Palace to meet the King. But Collins did meet James Craig, one of Northern Ireland’s most sectarian Protestant prime ministers, before he was killed by his own people. Avoiding assassination, McGuinness was to sit down with Ian Paisley and his cronies and become deputy minister of the state he tried so hard to destroy. That alone was worth a handshake from the British monarch.
But we should not be too romantic about violent men who pass through the archway of British political acceptance. Sadat was a German spy in Cairo in the Second World War. Then he became the beloved peace-maker. Nasser was at first greeted by Eden, who only later called him the Mussolini of the Nile, although Nasser did for the British Empire at Suez. Yasser Arafat was a “super-terrorist” when I first met him in Beirut in the 1980s, blathering on about the “Zionist military junta”; then he signed the Oslo agreement and became a “super-statesman” and shook hands with Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin. Yet under the brutal Sharon, he reverted to “super-terrorist” status, up to and including his moment of death. What moral transformartions! His body must have been “spinning” even before it was put in the grave.
It’s a heady, giddy business to undergo these constant conversions. Saddam was our man when he sent his Iraqi legions into revolutionary Iran in 1980 but then became the Hitler of the Tigris when he invaded the wrong country (Kuwait) 10 years later and got bombed for it, and was then invaded in 2003 for the one crime he didn’t commit (9/11). Off with his head, we cried, and the noose surely strangled him. Then take Muammar Gaddafi, whose Libyan coup was at first welcomed by the Foreign Office. But then he went a bit mad, issuing Trump-like statements of mind-numbing inanity, and then tried to fix up McGuinness and his mates with explosives and organised a bomb in a Berlin nightclub where it killed an American serviceman – and then got bombed by Ronald Reagan who dubbed him the “Mad Dog of the Middle East”.
But the “Mad Dog” outlived Saddam and got slobbered over by the Brits for deconstructing nuclear weapons he never had, and Saint Tony bestowed a kiss upon him and all was well until the Libyans decided they’d had enough and the much-kissed Muammar was butchered by a mob. No wonder he had a strange, puzzled look in his eyes at the time. Then there was Bashar al-Assad, son of the ferocious Hafez, invited to Bastille Day but then – post-Arab Awakening – loathed by the French, whose foreign minister declared that he did not deserve to live “on this earth”. The Quai d’Orsay did not suggest which particular planet he should fly to. But reader alert: with the Europeans back-peddling on their demands for his overthrow and Putin welcoming him to the Kremlin, we may yet see Bashar back in the halls of western Europe.
McGuinness, of course, maintained his statesmanship to the end, seeing off the grousing old Paisley, watching Peter Robinson slip in the Unionist mire and then observing the Democratic Unionists swamped in financial scandal. A good time to go, you might say, and join all the other “most wanted men” in the sky. But one of them, we would do well to remember, had a wanted poster all his own more than 100 years ago, way back in the Boer War: his name was Winston Churchill. And much to talk about they’ll have, I’m sure.