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Sunday 26 March 2017


Sinn Fein badly damaged by loss of Martin McGuinness

McGuinness was a mass murderer, but he was also a first-rate strategist and diplomat, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald huddle at Derry City Cemetery after Martin McGuinness’s funeral. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald huddle at Derry City Cemetery after Martin McGuinness’s funeral. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

We've learned a lot recently about the exceptional talents of Martin McGuinness as Sinn Fein's main strategist and diplomat. Such was his intelligence, cunning, the power of his personality and his remarkable manipulative skills that he caused President Michael D Higgins's already dodgy moral compass to give up the ghost completely. His statement on the death of McGuinness, a serial mass murderer, had nothing but positives.
Expressing his "great sadness", he paid tribute to McGuinness's "immense contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland - a contribution which has rightly been recognised across all shades of opinion".

True. But at least most shades of opinion admitted that he had done a lot of bad things in the past.
Not our President. "The world of politics and the people across this island will miss the leadership he gave... and his commitment to the values of genuine democracy that he demonstrated in the development of the institutions in Northern Ireland."

If one appreciates black humour, the tunnel vision of that presidential statement is almost as comic as the Pink News headline: 'Martin McGuinness, LGBT rights advocate and Sinn Fein leader, dies.'

President Higgins particularly noted McGuinness's "warmth and unfailing courtesy", characteristics that were mentioned by many of those he had successfully wooed. They were not in evidence if you were a nuisance, for as a military and political leader, McGuinness was callous and cold-hearted about the tens of thousands of people killed, injured or bereaved by IRA terrorism. He gave victims neither assistance nor apologies.

As Austin Stack, who persists in looking for help from Sinn Fein to find the murderer of his prison officer father, said last week, McGuinness "never, at any stage, tried to reach out to the victims, never tried to reconcile with victims and he never acknowledged the victims".

But on duty, McGuinness was not just charming and polite, but was one of those rare people whose ego never got in the way of achieving the result he wanted. He knew the importance of doing the necessary homework to establish common ground - the cricket statistics that impressed North Secretary Peter Hain, the knowledge of Burnley soccer team that enchanted Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's ruthless spin doctor, and the biblical passages that impressed Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson in chats about Christian faith.

He set out to make power-sharing work to persuade the southern electorate that Sinn Fein had become respectable, was committed to peace, might make good coalition partners and in 2018 should elect him President.

But he pulled down Stormont in the end, because, unlike him, Gerry Adams was unable to control the angry republicans and the only solution was an ethnic, drum-banging election. His last contribution was to plan a funeral that would satisfy Derry while playing well everywhere else.

At the funeral, Bill Clinton showed real affection for McGuinness. I doubt if he would feel the same about Adams, who in March 1998, when Clinton was deep in the mire of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, made him endure a lecture about Ireland, Cuba, and third world debt. McGuinness would have showed a bit of manly sympathy, chatted about golf and then got Clinton's agreement on some key issue.

"Adams," wrote Alastair Campbell last week, "would often talk in grand terms, and then McGuinness would come in with an absolutely chiselling point about what they wanted right there, right then and why they needed it right there, right then."

Adams's funeral performance got pretty mixed reviews, for it was hard not to see his vanity at work, as he embraced any of the famous he could get hold of. The sight of Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill standing either side of him as he delivered his oration was embarrassing.

A theme of the oration was hands across the divide, but it deeply offended unionists when he described McGuinness as a freedom fighter and told his audience: "Stand against bigotry. Against sectarianism. But respect our unionist neighbours. Reach out to them. Lead, as Martin led, by example."

McGuinness wouldn't have made the elementary error of implicitly suggesting that bigotry and sectarianism was a unionist thing.

What is Sinn Fein going to do without him? The party's talent pool is shallow and mediocrities dominate. The only person it has of any stature is Adams, but unionists loathe him, as do most non-Sinn Fein members of the Dail. The women are obedient, but Mary Lou has been damaged by successive Adams scandals and carries no clout in the North. O'Neill is untried and has no clout anywhere.

Does Adams, as some suspect, want to force direct rule because it might offer the opportunity to get more concessions from the British, and because it would help Sinn Fein to whip up the Anglophobia they're using to such effect in protests against Brexit? But how would that play with all those at home and abroad who invested so much of their time and trust in the peace process? No one really believes that the Provos would go back to war, so he doesn't have much leverage.

He is busy issuing ultimatums, but now that Arlene Foster's attendance at McGuinness's funeral went down so well, doesn't that make it harder for Sinn Fein to insist she step down while the RHI Inquiry goes on?

I can't see Adams being anything but a hindrance in the attempt to get the Northern Ireland executive back on track, or in getting into coalition with Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. But nor can I see him willingly ceding power to the next generation.

It looks like a very rocky road ahead for Sinn Fein without Martin McGuinness.

Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards