Belfast Telegraph

William Matchett: Martin McGuinness was no Nelson Mandela

Ignore all the SF distortions, ex-Deputy First Minister was no freedom fighter, he was a terrorist

By William Matchett

Instead of a badly drilled colour party of masked men fumbling shots, Gerry Adams took time to fire a freedom fighter comment over Martin McGuinness' grave. It is a measure of how far Sinn Fein has travelled that Adams could deliver a military-style salute and remain to savour the moment as opposed to scurrying into the crowd like the gunmen of yesterday.

Adams was on top of his game. The words were in harmony with how his friend had been eulogised by the majority of media, politicians and church leaders. Granted, unlike Adams, they were relating to McGuinness' political career. But the sentiment was similar. It said Martin was a good man. Martin was a moderate. Martin made peace possible. This was the tone of the reporting. This is what went out to the wider world on CNN, Al Jazeera, the New York Times and suchlike. To hold a contrary view was begrudging, ignorant, or even extremist. It capped a superb few days for Sinn Fein.

One sensed that the victims of IRA terrorism, such as Pat Gillespie's widow, were inserted into a piece of coverage to give the veneer of balance. It would take time before the 'good Martin' storyline was contested. By then, it was too late. The damage was done. Original headlines stick. They shape public perception. The further away and less informed the audience, the more this applies.

The freedom fighter comment marked the shift from mourning Martin's passing to celebrating his life. It received the same loud cheer as a rushed volley of shots did back in the day.

Adams was telling them: if you were in the IRA, be proud. If you supported the IRA, hold your head high. There is nothing to apologise for. None of this was our fault. We were forced to take up arms. We had no choice. Those who opposed us are to blame. The Brits were responsible.

The difficulty with using the term freedom fighter is that it is claimed by many other organisations.

Khalid Masood who murdered constable Keith Palmer in London would claim to be a freedom fighter. So are Osama bin-Laden, Mullah Omar and Jihadi John. In my opinion, this is the category McGuinness fits into for most of his adult life, which is the timespan the Sinn Fein president was referring to. The old adage still stands. One person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist. But it is one or the other. A person cannot be both at the same time.

The Provisionals' brand of republicanism is one viewpoint. The criminal justice system is another. In the latter, the IRA was defined in the UK, EU and US law as an unlawful terrorist organisation. The European Court of Human Rights also labelled the IRA a terrorist organisation in a number of high profile cases. The law and justice system said terrorism was a crime. Therefore, because Martin McGuinness was a member of the IRA, he was a terrorist. There is no grey area.

What matters is what the law says. Politicians make laws and the people elect politicians. The law is what holds society together. This is democracy. Murder was a crime when McGuinness joined the IRA. It still is. The definition did not change. McGuinness did.

The boy from the Bogside had free education, free health care and many other freedoms, as well as a strong social welfare net if needed. Plenty of people in other parts of the world did not have anything even close to this but did not turn to violence. Only a handful in Northern Ireland took up arms. A tiny minority of violent extremists held the entire country to ransom.

Yes, nationalists had grievances. But none of these warranted a conflict. By the mid-1970s most issues had been solved. Mandela was in prison for 27 years during which no significant reforms were made to the apartheid regime. Yet, republican propagandists have conditioned many people into believing Northern Ireland was South Africa and McGuinness was Mandela. It is an advantageous analogy that feeds the freedom fighter fantasy.

On a list of places to fight for freedom, Northern Ireland was near the bottom and ahead of its neighbour. Catholics in the north were better looked after than Protestants in the south.

There were also political opportunities for men like McGuinness to end the mayhem, such as Sunningdale. But the Provisionals were uninterested. They wanted war and sniffed glory. Or put another way, their aim was to prolong the conflict to win the peace. People would die to prepare Provisional Sinn Fein's entry into proper politics.

Even though there was no 'freedom' to fight for and there were political alternatives to explore, a new brand of IRA cracked on anyway. Northerners ignored older republicans who had been through the horrors of the Irish Civil War and who knew the futility of violence. Real republicans wanted to persuade unionists into a united Ireland through arguments and trust. They viewed the Provos as violent bigots and a stain on republicanism.

In the strongest terms, true Irish republicans warned the Provos against an 'armed struggle'. Their words fell on deaf ears. If only they had listened.

Republicanism is renowned for false claims of victimhood. It unashamedly romanticises terrorism and rewrites history. Distorting the truth is what it does. The way the media and various leaders behaved over McGuinness' death was gut-wrenching for innocent victims of terrorism. Also, what was broadcast around the world did little to expose Martin's dark side and much to hide it. Violent extremists of every type will be encouraged.

Dr William Matchett is author of Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat The IRA, and senior researcher at the Edward M Kennedy Institute for conflict prevention, Maynooth University, Ireland. He previously served as an officer in RUC Special Branch

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