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Both saint and sinner, Martin McGuinness leaves more than just one legacy

Journalist Kathryn Johnston, who with husband Liam Clarke wrote the only biography to date about the former First Minister, reflects on a life of extremes

On BBC Radio Ulster's one o'clock news yesterday, during tributes being paid to the former Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister and IRA chief of staff, Martin McGuinness, one line stood out.

The Queen, a statement from Buckingham Palace informed us, was writing a private letter to his widow.

It was less than a year since the Northern Ireland Office had released a rare video clip of McGuinness walking through a room in Hillsborough Castle, hand outstretched, to greet the Queen, who was on a two-day visit to Northern Ireland in June 2016.

"How have you been keeping", he jovially asked her, as the two shook hands. "I'm still alive anyway," replied the 90-year-old monarch.

Neither of them could have anticipated yesterday's events.

Martin McGuinness died after a short illness in the early hours of yesterday, his family around him.

His journey from 'blue eyed boy from the Bogside' to one half of the eponymous Chuckle Brothers duo with Ian Paisley during their time as First and Deputy First Ministers at the Assembly is the journey of the peace process.

There is no doubt that Martin McGuinness died as strong an Irish republican as he had lived. And I doubt if any other IRA leader could have brought the IRA's 30-year campaign from guns to government without mass death on the streets.

His death is of course a personal tragedy for his widow, his family, his friends and his comrades.

It is also a personal tragedy for the relatives of the more than 3,000 victims of the Troubles, who must have hoped against hope that McGuinness would somehow find the opportunity before his death to give the full and frank disclosure about his activities in the IRA that he had always promised.

My late husband, Liam Clarke (below right), the former political editor of the Belfast Telegraph who died on December 27, 2015, and I had co-written an unauthorized biography of McGuinness. The day before it had been published, it had been serialised in The Sunday Times.

Seamus Treacy, counsel for some of the Bloody Sunday families, raised the book's publication at the tribunal that examined the events of January 30, 1972 in the Bogside area of Derry, when 13 civilians were shot dead by paratroopers. "Yes," replied the inquiry's chair, Mark Saville. "My eyebrows rose slightly when I read the article yesterday."

McGuinness had been busy proclaiming his readiness to give evidence to the Inquiry, saying he was looking forward "to appearing at the tribunal and telling the truth."

His words were belied by his actions. He didn't even sign his draft statement until a month after the first edition of our book, Martin McGuinness: From Guns to Government, had gone on sale, and was one of the last to give evidence in November 2003.

McGuinness took his time to realise the unique opportunity offered him. In giving evidence, he would be offered limited immunity in respect of any of the actions he gave evidence of under oath. It was a heaven-sent opportunity to begin to lay the ghost of his paramilitary past.

In the event, he restricted his evidence to the period surrounding Bloody Sunday until his release from prison in 1974 in the Irish Republic, where he had been serving a short sentence for membership of the IRA. It was a shrewd legal move.

Our book had been the subject of controversy, as we gave an account from multiple sources of what McGuinness had been doing on Bloody Sunday.

He had, we revealed, been armed with a Thompson submachine gun and had intended to detonate explosives in a city centre premises. In the event, these plans came to nothing.

We were vilified for printing these claims, even though we made it clear that nothing McGuinness or any other IRA volunteer might have done or tried to do on the day could possibly justify the actions of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, who shot dead 13 unarmed civilians during a largely peaceful rights march.

On June 15, 2010, Lord Saville's report found that on Bloody Sunday McGuinness was "probably armed with a sub machine-gun." He went on to say, like us, that he had found no evidence that McGuinness had engaged "in any activity that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire." By the day after Bloody Sunday, McGuinness had been promoted to OC of the Derry Brigade of the IRA at the age of 22. Stories began to circulate about the charismatic young volunteer with the quick turn of phrase and the good looks. International celebrities began to beat a path to his door in the Bogside.

Jill Uris photographed him in Donegal while her husband, Leon, quizzed him about the IRA while researching his novel Trinity. He based the exploits of his hero, Conor Larkin, an IRA man in an earlier phase of the Troubles, on what he had garnered from McGuinness.

Sean MacStiofain quickly spotted the young OC and later in 1972 sent him to Cheyne Walk in London to meet William Whitelaw. He was the youngest member of the secret IRA delegation.

Nothing immediate transpired from the talks, though it was revealed years later that McGuinness had shown early signs of his legendary cool by taking a revolver with him to the talks without the knowledge of the other IRA men.

Also present was Frank Steele, a senior MI6 agent. Like MacStiofain, he was impressed with the young IRA commander. He was, decided Steele, a man the British could do business with. Soon, Steele had begun a dialogue with McGuinness that would continue when Steele was replaced by Michael Oatley in 1974 right up until the time of Oatley's retirement in 1991.

He continued to rise through the ranks of the IRA and by 1978 had replaced Gerry Adams as chief of staff after Adams was arrested for questioning about the La Mon massacre.

Yesterday afternoon I did an interview with BBC London around the theme of 'Martin McGuinness, saint or sinner?' Could we differentiate between the IRA who gave warnings and the ISIS or Daesh of today?

I reminded the interviewer that during his time as chief of staff, McGuinness was determined to establish a 'liberated zone' along the border of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic. In August 1979, he also personally sanctioned the murder of Earl Mountbatten.

Since 1969, Earl Mountbatten and his family had spent every August in Sligo. He had been warned that he was a prime target for the IRA, most recently by Sir Maurice Oldfield, who had just resigned from his post as 'C' - the director general of MI6. Oldfield had been warned that the IRA were planning an attack.

To the IRA, Mountbatten was a symbol of British imperialism. As a cousin to the Queen and uncle to Prince Charles, the Colonel in Chief of the Parachute Regiment, his death would give the IRA the propaganda victory that McGuinness dreamed of.

On the morning of August 27, 1979, two Irish plainclothes detectives were watching through binoculars as Mountbatten's boat, the Shadow, silently sailed past them. Suddenly, the silence was shattered when a massive explosion ripped the boat to pieces. The dead included Lord Mountbatten, his nephew, Nicholas Knatchbull, Paul Maxwell, a 15-year-old schoolboy from Enniskillen who was helping as boatman, and the Dowager Lady Brabourne.

Naturally, security forces were put on the highest possible alert after the attack.

That afternoon a convoy of two trucks of the Parachute Regiment drove to an Army base at Newry. Their route took them past Narrow Water, on the shore of Carlingford Lough, marking the boundary between Northern Ireland and the Republic. As the rear vehicle passed by a trailer, an IRA team detonated an 800lb bomb. Simultaneously, an IRA unit on the southern side of the border opened on the troops, who returned fire. A civilian, Michael Hudson, was killed in the crossfire. Six soldiers were killed in this explosion.

Several more Land Rovers and two helicopters arrived to help in the rescue effort. As a Wessex helicopter took off to ferry injured soldiers to hospital, a second 800lb bomb was detonated, killing 12 more soldiers. It was the Paras' biggest loss since Arnhem in World War Two.

But even before that, the real significance of this major coup by the IRA had been scrawled all over gable walls in Belfast and the Bogside.

"Thirteen dead and not forgotten, we got 18 and Mountbatten."

It was an echo of the graffiti that appeared after Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers had boasted, "We got one, we got two, we got 13 more than you". It was payback.

A caller told BBC London that the use of human bombs and suicide bombers differentiated contemporary terrorists from the IRA.

Tell that to the family of Patsy Gillespie, the first IRA 'human bomb' victim forced to drive a van load of explosives to a British Army checkpoint on the border in Derry in 1990 where an IRA unit, watching from the safety of Donegal across the Irish border, detonated it.

That was another 'innovation' introduced by the IRA under the command of Martin McGuinness. Five British soldiers and Mr Gillespie died in that attack.

Martin McGuinness had told BBC Real Lives: At the Edge of the Union in 1985: "We don't believe that winning elections and winning any amount of votes will win freedom in Ireland.

"At the end of the day, it will be the cutting edge of the IRA which will bring freedom."

Yet by 1994 the 'cutting edge' had had its effect, the IRA had declared a ceasefire and the peace process had begun.

In 2002, Martin McGuinness told the BBC's Nick Robinson in an interview that "the IRA have done things in the past which were wrong and I have spoken up on countless occasions about that and so has Gerry Adams, but I haven't done anything that I'm ashamed of."

The families of some of the victims would dispute that.

The family of Franko Hegarty, for instance, the IRA quartermaster who McGuinness suspected of giving information to British intelligence in 1984 which led to the discovery of weapons. McGuinness met his widowed mother, Rose Hegarty, and he promised her, "on bended knee, that her son was safe to return from exile". "A few boys would question him and he'd be free to go," he said.

Believing him, Hegarty's sister unwittingly drove Hegarty to the appointed place where he would meet his death. He was shot and his body unceremoniously dumped, his eyes bound back into his head by gaffer tape after they had been blown out by the close velocity shots that killed him.

When questioned about Hegarty's death in The Long War, a BBC film, McGuinness said: "If a republican activist who knows what the repercussions are for going over to the other side in fact goes over to the other side, then they, more than anybody else, are totally and absolutely aware of what the penalty for doing that is."

"Death?" asked the interviewer. "Death certainly," replied McGuinness.

Could any other Sinn Fein or IRA leader have taken the IRA on the long road from guns to government? It is unlikely that anyone else would have had the respect to bring the IRA to a cessation of violence without admitting defeat.

At the end of the day, history will record how Martin McGuinness is remembered.

There is no doubt that he was the most ruthless and formidable IRA man in the history of the Troubles.

Had he taken the opportunity to record, as he often promised, full and frank disclosure of his activities in the IRA, the families of the more than 3,000 victims of the troubles would have cause to be grateful to him.

As it is, he is likely to have taken his secrets with him to the grave, and history is the poorer for it.

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