Belfast Telegraph

Freedom fighter or polished peacemaker: which one is it?

By Liam Fay

If Martin McGuinness is elected Irish president later this month, Phoenix Park would only be the latest in a series of addresses in the Republic that he could call home.

At the height of his active service with the IRA, when he was frequently on the run from the British authorities, McGuinness had access to a network of safe houses in the south, where he would lie low.

Last Sunday evening, as his presidential election campaign gathered pace, McGuinness attended a rally at The Four Seasons Hotel in Monaghan. The event attracted an enthusiastic and sizeable audience that gave him several standing ovations.

McGuinness was introduced by Sinn Fein TD Caoimhghin O Caolain and the candidate also received celebrity endorsements from Roddy Collins, manager of Monaghan United, and members of the Monaghan ladies Gaelic football team. When he took the podium, McGuinness thanked everyone who'd turned up. However, he reserved his most heartfelt greeting for the representative of a local family that routinely provided him with refuge during his fugitive years.

Smiling broadly, he invited applause for the proprietors of the safe house and led the clapping himself. For a candidate who becomes sourly indignant when opponents, or journalists, raise the subject of his IRA past, McGuinness can display an almost giddy fondness for war stories. The tone of these reminiscences is defiant, proud, virtually dewy-eyed. It's not a period he appears remotely embarrassed to revisit, provided he is the one in the driving seat for the trip down memory lane.

However, the moment he is asked an uncomfortable question about the homicidal mayhem unleashed by the IRA during his watch, McGuinness's mood darkens. All discussion about the past is suddenly characterised as an irrelevance, a distraction, an obsession of the metropolitan media elite. The obstinately dismissive nature of McGuinness's attitude to awkward questioning about his history was highlighted during Tuesday's TV3 debate with the presidential hopefuls.

In one of the campaign's most memorable moments thus far, moderator Vincent Browne piled up almost a dozen books about the northern conflict, the authors of which insist that McGuinness's membership of the IRA continued long after 1974 when he claims to have left the organisation. In response, McGuinness argued that all of these reporters and historians were simply mistaken.

McGuinness established his preferred personal narrative early in the presidential campaign, and has clung to its sketchy plotline ever since.

He was, he recalls, 18 when he witnessed RUC attacks on civil rights marchers in his native Derry. He joined the IRA to stand up and be counted, to fight back against the British oppressors.

He also cites Bloody Sunday as a formative influence on his move towards armed republicanism, overlooking the fact that he was already a senior figure with the Derry IRA at the time of the massacre. Without fail, he then mentions the outraged reaction to Bloody Sunday in the south and the burning down of the British embassy in Dublin. “We didn't have a British embassy to burn down,” he laments.

By foreshortening his biography so that the story leaps forward to the peace process and the ensuing rave reviews for his performance as a Chuckle Brother, McGuinness hopes to steer clear of all that ugly business he'd rather the rest of us would pretend had never happened.

The bodies in ditches, the civilian slaughter, the decapitated children, Enniskillen, Warrington.

It's a deeply cynical strategy, but one that will undoubtedly reap some dividends. What's truly audacious, however, is McGuinness's evident belief that he can, at least occasionally, get away with raising the subject of his gunman past in a self-aggrandising manner designed to make his presidential rivals look weak by comparison.

During the presidential debate on RTE's Late Late Show last Friday, Fine Gael's Gay Mitchell taunted McGuinness for repeatedly likening himself to Nelson Mandela. “I've met Nelson Mandela myself — and you're no Nelson Mandela, Martin,” quipped Mitchell.

By Sunday, McGuinness had honed his rejoinder. Mitchell, he says, is no Michael Collins. Having made this crack in Monaghan, McGuinness then invited his audience to conduct a thought-experiment: if we could travel a century back in time, who do we think Collins would want beside him in the trenches — Mitchell or the erstwhile commander of the IRA's Derry brigade? When it suits him, the self-styled peacemaker is only too happy to flaunt his warmongering credentials.

Liam Fay is a Dublin-based |commentator and broadcaster

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