Belfast Telegraph

Martin McGuinness' record in Executive can't exorcise the ghosts of the past

The Deputy First Minister is likely to step down next year, but his IRA role will continue to haunt him, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

It could be argued that a public figure's health is a private affair and that voters have no right to know any more about it than he, or she, chooses to tell them. When it was reported over Christmas 2009 that Brian Lenihan, then Finance Minister in the Dublin Government, had pancreatic cancer, many were certainly outraged on his family's behalf.

The TV station in question reminded critics that the country's economy was in crisis post-recession and that the stamina of the man in charge of fixing it was a cause of concern to all.

The controversy surrounding the Renewable Heating Initiative (RHI) may not be as critical as that, but if no less senior a figure than Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is warning of "grave consequences" if the matter is not resolved satisfactorily, then the health of the main players surely matters just as greatly.

So, it's been something of a concern that the medical condition afflicting Martin McGuinness has so far remained shrouded in mystery.

Now the first crack in Sinn Fein's legendary wall of silence has appeared, with the admission by former MLA Daithi McKay that the Deputy First Minister may soon stand down from his post because of poor health.

If the first real "changing of the guard" in the republican movement since the end of the Troubles is, indeed, imminent, it offers a timely opportunity to assess what all sides must agree is a mixed legacy.

There will be plenty who struggle to find much sympathy for the former IRA leader, pointing out that he's enjoyed many more decades of life than the legions of victims of the terrorist group that he commanded.

Not everyone is ready to show the forgiveness which Gordon Wilson showed after his daughter, Marie, was murdered by the IRA in Enniskillen. Some may never be ready to do so and their right not to pardon the killers of their loved ones is equally valid.

Forgiveness without justice generally suits the interests of the guilty, rather than the innocent.

At the same time, it would be churlish to deny that it would have been much more difficult to make the progress which undoubtedly has been achieved with Gerry Adams at the helm in Stormont instead.

On the occasions that McGuinness has met and shaken hands with the Queen, he's done so with gravitas and dignity. Adams couldn't help souring his own handshake with Prince Charles on the latter's historic visit to Ireland by making it seem as if it was Gerry himself who was making the more magnanimous gesture.

McGuinness recognises that not everything is about him. He appears not to be ruled by his ego, a rarer quality than it should be. It may be a front, but it's a necessary one. He's also learned to judiciously bite his tongue.

Because he works with unionists every day, he's had to develop strategies to keep his political prejudices in check. Adams let his true feelings show when he said - in Enniskillen, of all places - that the "point" of Sinn Fein's approach to unionists was to "break these b*******".

In order to make the Assembly work, McGuinness was even prepared to find common ground with then DUP leader Ian Paisley, to the extent that they became known as the 'Chuckle Brothers'.

There was something deplorable about two men who'd done much to divide Northern Ireland suddenly kissing and making up in the name of power.

The cosy double act was probably necessary, too, but no less nauseating for it. McGuinness has been lucky. Adams is widely mocked for denying that he was ever in the IRA. McGuinness was praised for being more forthcoming when he appeared before the Bloody Sunday tribunal, though he really didn't have much choice, after telling the Special Criminal Court in Dublin in 1973 that he was "a member of Oglaigh na hEireann (the IRA) and very, very proud of it". But he hasn't been entirely honest, either.

He continues to insist that he left the IRA in 1974. That lie has been politely overlooked. His failed bid for the Irish presidency in 2011 likewise brought out a tetchy, thin-skinned side to his character that he struggled to hide.

Confronted on the campaign trail by the son of an Irish soldier murdered by the IRA during a notorious kidnapping, he flatly denied ever being on the IRA's ruling "army council", superciliously asking the bereaved son who insisted that he was: "How do you know that?"

Question marks remain over numerous other episodes in his past, not least the death of IRA informer Frank Hegarty.

The dead man's mother says McGuinness personally assured her that her son would be safe if he returned from England. In fact, he was shot dead.

BBC journalist Peter Taylor, who's delved deeply into the secret history of the Troubles, further claims that McGuinness had advance warning of the Enniskillen bombing.

He was unquestionably in a major leadership role in the IRA during some of the most notorious atrocities, including the IRA attack in October 1990, in which Patsy Gillespie, a civilian cook at an Army base, was strapped into a van loaded with explosives and forced to drive to a border checkpoint, where the bomb was detonated by remote control, killing him and five soldiers.

That was an act of evil by any standards and it's a stain on the strand of Irish republicanism that the Derry man represents. A couple of years ago, he was still refusing to accept it was "cold-blooded murder".

In response, Victor Barker, father of 12-year-old James, killed in the Omagh bombing, said: "I would have more respect for Martin McGuinness if he completed his democratic journey and admitted some of the crimes which he has been a part of."

But if one thing has become obvious since the end of the violence, it's that his generation of ex-terrorists may never complete that journey.

They were able to go some way along the road from violence and we ought to be relieved that they did, though never grateful. They'll never deserve gratitude.

More important, though, is to never forget the monstrous things that can be done by apparently affable family men, who write poetry and enjoy fishing.

We're asked to brush the monstrous things that they did under the carpet, because these men eventually backed away from the brink - but it took them far too long to realise that they could not get their way by force.

A few good deeds does not erase the memory of evil.

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