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Martin McGuinness changing his mind isn't same as selling out

By Liam Clarke

Published 13/08/2015

The Customs checkpoint between Newry and Dundalk in 1981. Martin McGuinness is convinced the border will disappear, but is not putting a date on reunification
The Customs checkpoint between Newry and Dundalk in 1981. Martin McGuinness is convinced the border will disappear, but is not putting a date on reunification

Was Gregory Campbell right to accuse Martin McGuinness of "selling out" hardline republicans by failing to deliver what they wanted? Do we put too high a premium on consistency?

When the Bourbons were restored to the French monarchy after the fall of Napoleon, it was said that: "They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing."

Their regime did not last, but that knuckleheaded adherence to your first opinion and to traditional views sometimes seems to be the ideal to which some Northern Ireland politicians now aspire.

Mr Campbell (below), the DUP MP for East Londonderry, was referring to Mr McGuinness' interview in Monday's Belfast Telegraph, in which he said "I believe a united Ireland is inevitable. I have never put a date on it."

I had asked him about Sinn Fein predictions that unity would be achieved by the centenary of the East Rising in 2016. His answer wasn't strictly true.

Back in 2003, while campaigning for Sinn Fein in the Assembly elections, he was asked about Irish unity and retorted: "It is our view that it can be accomplished over a short period. Gerry Adams has said 2016 and I think that is achievable."

That is a 'Gotcha' moment - and there are others. Mr McGuinness told me: "There will be no change in the constitutional position without the support of a majority of people in the north. I am working to bring that about. It will happen when it happens, and in the meantime we have to continue on the work that we are doing within the institutions."

If you dig back far enough you will find him saying no IRA ceasefire, no decommissioning and no settlement without a British statement of intent to withdraw.

That wasn't achieved, but is it right to call it a sell-out or hypocrisy to settle for less than the maximum demand? It is true that few would have joined the IRA to fight for power-sharing with the DUP. Unfortunately, nobody knew how things would change; this outcome was not predicted. Hindsight provides 20/20 vision and it is natural to ask: "Why did you encourage people to fight for one thing, when you would settle for less?"

People were generally inspired to join the IRA by the feeling that there was a great injustice and no other way of tackling it short of force. That, as far as we know, was Mr McGuinness' reason. He has cited discrimination in employment and knowing people who were killed or injured.

Searching, over a period of years, for a way out of this situation and changing your approach is not something to be ashamed of or criticised for. What you can be more validly criticised for is not changing a bit sooner.

Put simply, the traditional values and outlooks of the two communities in Northern Ireland combined with historical challenges to produce years of conflict. People sticking to their views, sometimes being prepared to sacrifice life for something held forth as a principle, made compromise impossible.

If someone spent several years studying and then boasted at the end "none of it changed my view in the slightest, I knew it all already", we would be more likely to think the student had wasted time than to praise a consistent, principled approach.

It should be a matter of shame after a career in politics, or even in a paramilitary group, to say that the experience hasn't changed you, or that you have no sympathy for your opponents.

The sort of "difficult conversations" about the past that are being proposed will be more productive if we put less of a premium on consistency over a whole career. Consistency of that type can be a refusal to learn from experience.

These things need to be discussed more openly, with politicians admitting where their own traditions may have been at fault in the past. They also need to tell us where they have changed their views, and why.

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