Last week, after having writing about the dreadful naïve, ill-informed and biased TG4 documentary sanitising Martin McGuinness, I was cheered by a reminder that in the long term history will show him for what he was
Published: 19 January 2021
He was a liar who claimed to have left the IRA in 1974, but who for his whole adult life led a ruthless gang of murderers and criminals.
Not only did they terrorise people at home and abroad in the name of Irish freedom, but through brazen lies, propaganda and the use of lawfare to suppress truth, they repackaged themselves successfully as selfless peace-makers.
But last week came the publication of McGuinness’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) which peels away many of the lies about his career told by and about him.
The DNB is the first port of call for factual details about dead people who have been judged by the editors to have been of significant importance in the history of the United Kingdom, be they heroes or villains.
Someone well-informed is invited to write the entry, charged with providing all the important facts despite serious space constraints while portraying the subject interestingly and fairly.
Editors then scrutinise the text for omissions, errors or bias.
The late Chris Ryder, a fine and brave author, journalist and teller of uncomfortable truths — who escaped being murdered by the IRA in the 1970s only because they grasped it would be a public relations disaster — took on the job of telling the story of James Martin Pacelli McGuinness.
As Henry McDonald, prolific author and Guardian/Observer correspondent on Northern Ireland, judged it, Ryder wrote “a balanced, fair and accurate portrayal of a life of policy contradictions, ruthless leadership, indifference to human suffering and yet an increasing sense of realism breaking through”.
Ryder talks, for instance, about the resentment of some of McGuinness’s comrades for his “hands-off role”, which they “feared to question openly”.
He got others to do his dirty work. Writing of the IRA Belfast massacre on Bloody Friday, July 21 1972, when 22 bombs killed nine people, and the three Claudy car bombs, 10 days later, that killed nine, Ryder says “as always McGuinness distanced himself from any responsibility,” and escaped to his “safe house” in Donegal.
Brendan Duddy, famously his go-between with MI6, wrote of him in his diary as “an aggressive militarist” and a “little Hitler”.
Persuaded by Gerry Adams, the IRA decided on running a political strategy alongside the “long war” McGuinness favoured.
He would spend most of his time travelling around Ireland using his undoubted charisma to re-motivate volunteers and closely supervising “the planning, preparation, and sanctioning of operations”.
He panicked, apparently, after the “tsunami of criticism” that followed the murder of census enumerator Joanne Mathers in Derry in 1981.
His claim that the census was an intelligence-gathering exercise by the government and that the IRA did not set out to kill civilians was met with ridicule.
It was McGuinness who kept widening the list of “legitimate targets” to include anyone working directly or indirectly for the security services — from cleaners to judges — which would come to include a very high proportion of the Protestant population.
Infrequently, McGuinness was hands-on.
In a chilling sentence, Ryder wrote: “Over time … he drew an ever tighter clique around himself and showed absolute ruthlessness in having informers tortured and murdered.” According to IRA members, an increasingly paranoid McGuinness “often conducted the actual shooting himself, ‘to show he was still prepared to do so.’”
Consumed with rage about informers, by assuring his mother and family he would be safe, McGuinness lured his old friend Frank Hegarty — who had revealed an arms dump — back to Derry and met him in Buncrana.
As Bishop Edward Daly of Derry put it,”far from using a henchman (as he would ordinarily do), McGuinness personally arranged the rendezvous with Hegarty from which the latter did not return”.
In a week in which because of the revelations about the Mother and Baby Homes the Irish Roman Catholic Church is under savage criticism, I’d like to pay tribute to Bishop Daly.
At the 1990 funeral of Patsy Gillespie, kidnapped, forced to drive to a barracks and along with five soldiers he had tried to save, blown to pieces on McGuinness’s instructions, Bishop Daly said he believed the IRA had crossed “a new threshold of evil.”
He went on to describe the work of the IRA “is the work of the devil … Jesus Christ said ‘by their fruits, you shall know them’ — and the fruits of the IRA or strewn all over Europe from a murdered infant in West Germany, murdered Australian tourists in Holland, to murdered pensioners in Enniskillen, to murdered good Samaritans in Creggan in our own city. And on last Wednesday morning, they attempted to do two other men in Newry and Gorton, what they did to Patsy Gillespie — an act of unspeakable cruelty. These are the fruits of the provisional IRA – by their fruits you shall know them”.
I look forward to reading in a few years what will be a much fuller account of McGuinness’s life in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.
Despite all their lies and intimidation, McGuinness’s followers cannot stop true history being written.