Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Questions about McGuinness haven't gone away, you know

In the spotlight: Martin McGuinness, challenged by an IRA victim’s son during the Irish presidential election

Transparency and openness. So much in public life has revolved around these two words in the past week - from the phone-hacking scandal in Rupert Murdoch's empire to Cardinal Sean Brady's failings over child sex-abuse.

In the midst of all this headline-grabbing controversy, one other public figure closer to home has withstood another wave of claims about his past.

The deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, dismissed evidence given to the Smithwick Tribunal as fantasy. He said he totally rejected claims that he was the IRA's northern officer commanding who approved the use of 'human bombs' and other acts of terrorism.

Mr McGuinness has been in outspoken form of late. He told a conference in London last week that the Good Friday Agreement signalled the end of the Union.

He has called for the closure of the Northern Ireland Office and says a Secretary of State is needed no longer. He reveals that Ian Paisley said to him at their first meeting: "Martin, we can rule ourselves ... we don't need these direct rule ministers coming over here and telling us what to do."

However, whatever the future of the Union or the Northern Ireland Office, it is the questions about the deputy First Minister's past which refuse to go away. The evidence to the Smithwick Tribunal has resurrected the spectre of Mr McGuinness in the IRA.

A year ago, similar allegations surfaced during the Irish presidential election, with victims of the IRA confronting Mr McGuinness on the streets of the south. Even the interrogatory powers of the Republic's best journalists and interviewers failed to cast any more light on his IRA background.

It is a measure of the extent to which the community wants to preserve peace and political stability that the dismissive comments made by Mr McGuinness about the Union and with regard to his IRA involvement have not led to any serious fracture in relations in the First and deputy First Minister's office.

Peter Robinson says the Stormont coalition will remain intact. It would only be threatened if firm police evidence of involvement in terrorism led to charges in accordance with the due process of the law.

In many minds - not least the IRA's victims - unease and disquiet will probably never abate. More likely than not, Mr McGuinness may live out his life without the full facts of his militant years ever emerging.

When Peter Robinson says it up to people to come forward with evidence, there appears little, or no, chance of that happening.

Martin McGuinness has made an impressive mark as deputy First Minister. He has shown courage in standing up against dissident violence and he has positively and enthusiastically promoted Northern Ireland at home and abroad.

However, as Rupert Murdoch and Cardinal Brady have found to their cost in the past week, openness and transparency are essential requirements of public life today.

Compared to MPs at Westminster, who cheated on their expenses, or ministers in the Irish government, who accepted bungs from corrupt businessmen, those at Stormont who keep their past from public scrutiny belong to a special league.

How, it may well be asked, can they demand transparency and openness in public office if they fail to practice it themselves?

How can they pronounce in moral judgment on such issues as child-abuse in the Catholic Church - as Martin McGuinness did last week - if they refuse to reveal the secrets of their own past activities?

It appears that, unless someone comes up with a formula agreed by all sides which would allow light to be shone on the so-called 'dirty war' of the 1970s and 80s, we will never read the full, unabridged, unexpurgated version of events surrounding Martin McGuinness, or many others.

We will continue to hang on every new revelation about child-abuse and phone-hacking, but we will remain in the dark about matters which are even more serious. That is because our unique brand of political stability depends on this imperfect arrangement.

The peace process decrees that boats cannot be rocked unduly and that embarrassing questions are swiftly airbrushed from our minds.

So long as transparency and openness are not taken as seriously here as they are elsewhere, things are unlikely to change.

The real casualty of the Good Friday Agreement is not the Union, as Martin McGuinness claims. The real casualty is truth.

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