On burying Martin McGuinness

by Barendina Smedley

There’s a nice irony — ‘nice’, that is, in the older sense of the word — in the fact that the day of Martin McGuinness’ burial is being marked in London with blue flashing lights, bridges closed off with police tape, helicopters circling low overhead and tributes to a brave police constable, murdered while carrying out his job. At least for people of a certain age, it is these things, more than Tuesday morning’s fulsome farewells to a dead peace-maker, that conjure up the man.

McGuinness’ IRA was responsible for killing far more Londoners, far more police constables, far more UK residents and visitors than Islamist terrorists have ever done. At some level, the marvellous efficacy of the UK’s security services these days is due in part to the terrible on-the-job training they received via decades of republican paramilitary violence. If, today, ideologically-overcooked psychopaths have to carry out their fantasies without benefit of firearms, explosives, even networks of like-minded pals — as yesterday’s attack suggests may be the case — then the lessons of all that IRA central London carnage have been well-learned.

As it happens, I spent part of the day of McGuinness’ death watching a Panorama broadcast about Sandhurst, made in 1975. This produced some complicated feelings, not least because it featured a 19-year old Patrick Mercer, lecturing his fellow students about urban guerilla warfare.

For some reading this, the phrase ‘disgraced Tory MP’ has perhaps already appended itself to the name above, for pretty obvious reasons. As someone who once worked, all too briefly, with Patrick, let it be recorded that I both like and admire him, not least for his brave service over the course of nine tours with the Sherwood Foresters in Northern Ireland, during which he was mentioned in despatches, received a commendation for gallantry and made an MBE. Watching Panorama, it was jarring to see Patrick looking roughly the age of one of my 12-year old son’s older friends. Worse, though, was a sudden, slightly morbid question that suddenly occurred to me: when Patrick goes on to a better place, will posterity hear more about the ‘disgraced Tory MP’ bit, or all the bravery and sacrifice?

When I knew Patrick, in the early years of this century, he walked with a very slight limp. (This is no way detracted from his charisma, which effortlessly elevated him above the fairly dull pool of politicians in which he was, at the time, immersed.) It was only later that I was told — correctly or otherwise — that this limp was the result, post some excellent work on the part of the staff at Headley Court, of one of several IRA assassination attempts. To the extent that Patrick ever spoke to me about his time in Northern Ireland, though, the narratives were basically all about times when the British army got one over on the provos. For a civilian, these stories were always rather jaw-dropping, and sometimes pretty dark — but also, often very funny. Whatever else Patrick might have been, he did not strike me as one of life’s victims.

Yet when I heard the news on Tuesday morning of McGuinness’ death, my first thought was for the victims — McGuinness’ victims, the victims of his whole obscene ‘armed struggle’ narrative and the weak, unhinged or simply bad people who got sucked into it. It was for the people who probably think of McGuinness much more often than I ever do. It was, in a sense, for the people who have a right to make judgements about how much the apparent second act of McGuinness’ life really signified: whether we should remember a murderer today, or the fact that at some level he stood back from being a murderer and in fact told others that being a murderer was no longer the right thing to do.

It is hard to avoid thinking of them, these victims. So many people were directly affected — so many still are directly affected — by McGuinness’ words and actions, the evil ones as much as the ones that came afterwards.

What can any of the rest of us say in the face of that sort of experience? On the one hand, Lord Tebbit — a man whose wife was paralysed in the Brighton bombing, who also lost five friends in the bombing and whose own health will be affected by it for life — greeted the news with a sort of grim rejoicing.

I’m just pleased that the world is a sweeter and cleaner place now.

He was not only a multi-murderer, he was a coward. He knew that the IRA were defeated because British intelligence had penetrated right the way up to the Army Council and that the end was coming. He then sought to save his own skin and he knew that it was likely he would be charged before long with several murders which he had personally committed and he decided that the only thing to do was to opt for peace.

He claimed to be a Roman Catholic. I hope that his beliefs turn out to be true and he’ll be parked in a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of Hell for the rest of eternity.

In contrast, however, when Jo Berry heard Lord Tebbit’s words on television, she was quick to tweet her response: ‘Tebbit not speaking for all, I value Martin McGuinness as an inspiring example of peace and reconciliation. I lost my Dad in [the] Brighton Bomb.’ Ms Berry is the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry MP, one of five of our fellow humans who were murdered by Patrick McGee’s bomb that night. She now runs the Building Bridges for Peace initiative — in the course of which, remarkably, she has often spoken alongside McGee himself, in the interests of breaking down barriers and asserting a common, empathetic humanity. Ms Berry went on to say, presumably again with reference to Lord Tebbit, ‘I understand ALL responses to being affected by terrorism. I dedicated myself to peace as didn’t want others to feel that pain.’ Again, though, thinking of Ms Berry, the word ‘victim’ seems wrong. Her words conjure up a series of positive, active, inspiring moral choices — heroism, rather than victimhood.

And on a similar note, on Tuesday morning, my thoughts turned to Timothy Knatchbull. On 27 August 1979, as a 14-year old boy, he was very nearly killed when, as his family were enjoying a holiday in a pretty part of Ireland, a 50-lb IRA bomb, detonated from the shore, blew apart his grandfather’s little fishing boat as they set out across the water at Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo. Knatchbull’s 79-year old grandfather, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, was murdered in the blast, as were his beloved twin brother Nicholas, his 83-year old maternal grandmother the dowager Lady Brabourne, and Paul Maxwell, a 15-year old local boy who helped the family with their boats. His mother and father both suffered serious injuries. On that same day, eighteen British soldiers were murdered in an ambush at Warrenpoint, a famous beauty-spot in Co. Down.

I remember reading the news of these atrocities soon after they happened. Sad to say, quite a lot of IRA violence melds together in memory, distance obscuring the detail if not the generalised horror, if only because, during the course of my lifetime, there has been so much of it. When Lord Mountbatten was murdered, however, I was 13 years old. So the fact that republican terrorists would knowingly slaughter a whole family like this in the midst of a boating holiday — old grandparents, young boys, the lot — really struck home with me. It’s only now, confronted with that footage of a 19-year old Patrick Mercer, that I remember how young some of those murdered at Warrenpoint were, too. Six of those who died were 20 years old or younger. It is a painful thing to think about.

Years later, when I was old enough to have a young son of my own, I read Timothy Knatchbull’s extraordinary account of his own journey of healing and reconciliation, From A Clear Blue Sky. It is a very hard book to read, in places, and it cannot have been an easy book to write. This interview brings out some of its themes. The odd thing about it, though, is that although it’s an intensely personal book, centered on an experience far more terrible than anything that most of us will ever know, it also contains a lot of practical good advice about how to move on from tragedy, whether great or trivial, and engage with life in a more positive and successful way. In the end, Knatchbull doesn’t sound like a ‘victim’ at all, either. He sounds like a very brave man, and an inspiring one, too.

Finally, watching McGuinness’s obituary notices on the BBC news, I was very struck by the footage of HM the Queen — cousin of Lord Mountbatten, great friend of the Knatchbull family, comforter of Timothy Knatchbull in the days after his brother’s death — greeting McGuinness with a sprightly ‘I’m still alive’, which garnered a laugh from the genial ex-terrorist who almost certainly played a part in Mountbatten’s murder. Does one laugh or cry at this? A little of both, perhaps, while reflecting that the Queen also seems to reject the language of victimhood. Not for the first time, it occurs to me that the Queen is, in all sorts of ways, an infinitely better person than I am.

What to make of all this? On one hand, there’s a sort of aesthetic judgement that springs to the foreground, entirely unbidden: generosity is a better look than rancour, forgiveness is more attractive than bitterness. Berry, Knatchbull, the Queen are all in the right here. No, Lord Tebbit is the one who gets it wrong. Blessed are the peacemakers. Those who aren’t peacemakers are — well, less than blessed. How easy it is to check out the options on offer, and go for the more warm-hearted, cool-headed, obviously heroic one. This is especially easy for those of us who, through no merits of our own, have never had to deal first-hand with the actual consequences of terrorist violence. It is so very easy to judge other people. Indeed, in a sense, the whole business of a very public death, like that of McGuinness, is all about judging.

Back in the 1990s, on a Saturday morning, I once saw Lord and Lady Tebbit. They were in Selfridges, shopping for a greeting card. Lord Tebbit was pushing Lady Tebbit’s wheelchair. He looked older than I remembered him, and already a little frail. She looked immaculate. She was wearing a very pretty scarf, had her hair ‘done’, and her makeup was flawless. In a radio interview, I had heard that Lord Tebbit himself helped his wife dress, apply her lipstick, style her hair — none of which she could reliably do herself any more, having only very limited use of her arms and hands, and no use whatsoever of her legs. Lord Tebbit is not famously a gentle or patient man, but the solicitude and undisguised affection with which he held one card after another in front of his wife, for her to examine and comment upon, has stayed with me ever since. When I hear the phrase ’til death do us part’, this is what comes to mind.

Yet even if I think of this scene, this couple, their own kind of heroism in the face of absolute tragedy, every now and then — every few weeks or months — what is that, compared with what they have to go through every day? The inconvenience, the pain, the minor humiliations and huge practical challenges of physical disability, the psychological trauma, all the rest? It is absolutely nothing. I literally cannot begin to imagine what the name McGuinness really means to them. And so it is that I cannot criticise, even for a moment, Lord Tebbit’s response to McGuinness’ death.

There is a great deal of pain in the world. It is almost certainly right that a measure of the motive energy behind Irish republicanism arose out of that pain — a septic history of injustice, bigotry, callousness and incuriosity that existed alongside and across a different set of Irish histories, taking into their remit some beautiful architecture, world-class plasterwork, a shared love of thoroughbred bloodstock, a certain sense of humour. We all have our own histories and sometimes it is very hard to look over the walls of our own to catch a glimpse of someone else’s alternate version. But at the same time, it is without argument that Irish republicanism also added materially to the sum of that pain.

There is certainly a case to be made that McGuinness, in the end, also did some good. For those who like that sort of thing, there is a strong example of it, by Alastair Campbell, here. One can imagine a version of McGuinness who, for whatever reason, never even notionally turned away from violence. That would have been worse, surely? One can speculate about why McGuinness decided to do what he did — whether the IRA had been ‘defeated’ anyway, whether he himself had long been a wholly-owned subsidiary of MI5, to what extent his actions were cynical or self-interested — but in the end, it’s hard to deny that the Good Friday Agreement, for all its flaws, has brought about a settlement whereby there is a lot less killing, maiming and destruction here in these islands than was previously the case. Whether this happy state of affairs will survive the ill-planned Brexit experiment remains to be seen. But at least for now, there are plenty of young British soldiers, middle-aged police constables, shoppers in Knightsbridge or Warrington or Belfast, all able to go about their business without having to worry about the IRA. McGuinness could perhaps have kept his grotesque ‘armed struggle’ going a bit longer, but instead he helped to bring it to a halt. I am glad about that, at least.

And yet as all sorts of famous and important people make their way to McGuinness’ graveside right about now, and the news bulletins prepare to go over from blanket coverage of present-day terrorism to memories of terrorism gone by, there are two reasons why, when contemplating this divisive figure’s complicated legacy, a tendency to err on the side of generosity might possibly make sense. Both are practical. Neither is absolute, and I wouldn’t insist on either of them.

The first is that bad people need some sort of well-trodden path back from at least the very worst of their badness, if only because to deny them that path is to prolong the badness itself.

The international community very often get this one wrong, which is odd, as there are quite a lot of examples of how well it can work in practice. Idi Amin, for instance, was a card-carrying monster, responsible for the deaths of between 100,000-500,000 people during his time as president of Uganda — but when his nightmarish regime began to fall apart c. 1979, he was allowed to seek sanctuary first in Libya, then in Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2003. True, he was never made to ‘pay’ for his crimes  — but where’s the currency that can make good a tragedy on that scale? His departure spared Uganda more deaths and a longer civil war. It speeded the process of healing. Along similar lines, Augusto Pinochet, who during his time as Chilean dictator was also no great friend of individual liberty, eventually gave up power more or less voluntarily, his subsequent exile making possible the gradual transition to a functioning democracy.

By way of contrast, look at today’s Near East. When Hosni Mubarak was forced from power by widespread popular unrest in 2011, he was not allowed the luxury of a quiet retirement, the chance to spend more time with his ill-gotten gains or to behave like a character in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story, perpetually strolling alongside the lapping shore of some tranquil lake in Switzerland, reminiscing mournfully over long coffees. No, he was arrested, tried, imprisoned. And while on one level this was immaculately fair — aside from anything else, there is little doubt that he and his family engaged in corruption in a pretty epic scale — I have always wondered whether those powerful images of the ex-president on trial, sallow and unsmiling behind his dark aviator glasses, as he and his sons sat displayed in a cage, were part of the reason why subsequent acts of the Arab Spring played out as they did, at incalculable human cost.

Did Muammar Gaddafi, for instance — a man whose story is, of course, inextricably entwined with Irish republican violence — see those images and calculate — perhaps wrongly, given the circumstances of his own death, trapped like a rat in a damp and muddy drain pipe  — that a fight to the end was preferable to a managed transition? For that matter, has Bashar al-Assad, once very much a man with whom liberal western regimes could do business, done the same? And if so, were the many hundreds of thousands of deaths, the life-changing traumas, the displacement, the destruction of beautiful and important old places, the extinction of minority communities and cultures, the sheer enormity of the past seven years all worth that nod to ‘fairness’?

With the benefit of hindsight, given the choice, I’d rather have seen these fiends all retired in comfort and safety, looking forward to the undeserved luxuries of star-studded funerals and extremely generous obituary notices. That McGuinness was able to secure these things for himself should send a helpful message to those with similar career transition issues. If there is one message from his life, it’s that no matter how awful someone is, given enough guile and skill and charm, there is always a way back. If our current crop of Islamist nutcases take note, all the better.

The other reason to err on the side of forgiveness, while similarly practical, plays out in slightly less tangible terms. Put bluntly, just as Timothy Knatchbull eventually found that harbouring anger towards his family’s killers was doing him genuine harm — and just as he learned to set aside that anger, as much as a survival mechanism as anything more elevated — I don’t think that obsessive hatred directed at groups or individuals, no matter how appalling their actions may be, does a culture any good either. Not least, there is something quite lazy about it. It makes things too easy.

For years, saying the Lord’s Prayer, I used to think of Martin McGuinness. ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ I would attempt to direct some kind of dry, pro-forma forgiveness in McGuinness’ general direction.

Why McGuinness rather than, say, Gerry Adams — let alone Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, the topical baddie of the moment? I suppose I found it particularly easy to dislike McGuinness because he always looked so smug, so full of himself. He was a really good terrorist, a terrorist who was excellent at being a terrorist — a ‘winner’ in Alastair Campbell terminology — and he knew it. Somehow this made him seem a much nastier piece of work than any of the others. In his later, semi-respectable days, he became more smiley, more the jovial genial Irish rogue, and all sorts of people seemed to find him really likeable, which made me dislike him even more.

All of this simplified my prayers enormously, of course, because if McGuinness hadn’t been on the scene, I’d have had to turn my thought to forgiving the really difficult cases: a neighbour who turned up on the wrong side of a local planning dispute, say, or one of my son’s more annoying school-teachers.

As a culture, it is very easy to hate the big-name bad guys, to blame them all sorts of things, channel a great deal of anger towards them and think that everything will be fine once they are off the scene. It is very easy to see the world in black and white. At the moment, our existential enemy is Islamist extremism, which often gets muddled up with issues of race, immigration, cultural and religious toleration. At another point in our recent history, the enemy was violent sectarianism and regional separatism, also tied up with issues of civil rights, post-industrial economic shocks, post-imperialist readjustments, heaven knows what besides. And before that, it was something else entirely, possibly to do with the Second World War, which still features prominently in our cultural language whenever our thought turn collectively to Good vs Evil.

In truth, though, there are always people who, probably for reasons not unrelated to mental health challenges, are particularly vulnerable to monstrous fundamentalist ideologies and the individuals who promulgate them, and who, as a result, are moved to commit criminal acts. Generally, they are in a tiny minority, while the majority is much more obviously sane, level-headed, empathetic and kind. Treating the problem of ‘terrorism’ as something somehow beyond the bounds of normal political and legal solutions gives it a special status it does not deserve. In contrast, reducing these fabled ‘terrorists’ to individual actors, flawed and human, with definable goals and possible exit strategies, cuts them down to size.

And in turn, while blind hatred makes all this harder to do, a sort of clear-eyed, unsentimental and critical acceptance probably makes it easier. Hating McGuinness boosted him more than it diminished him; setting aside that hatred in favour of something less emotionally charged boosted our institutions more than it diminished them. Framing ourselves as generous, forgiving and persistent is, ultimately, more empowering than a perpetual narrative of victimhood. As the Queen put it, a tiny old woman smiling down her smug-faced would-be killer, ‘I’m still alive’. Who was the winner there?

As should be clear by now, I did not like Martin McGuinness. He was a murderer, and the engine and enabler of other murders. He caused grave harm to a few whom I know personally, and a great many whom I do not. Although I can see the benefits of the peace process, and am glad that Northern Ireland was safer today than it had been a few decades ago, it has always rankled with me to see him grinning next to various world leaders, grinning at Stormont, grinning in receipt of huge amounts of UK taxpayers’ money, grinning in any context whatsoever. Strange to say, too, it also rankled with me that while much-decorated Army officer Patrick Mercer was regarded as ‘disgraced’ for having made a few stupid mistakes (and in passing, one has to wonder whether Patrick’s devil-may-care lack of inhibition may have masked a degree of high-functioning PTSD, but Patrick would doubtless hate that suggestion, and anyway it’s an argument for another day), somehow recovering terrorist McGuinness’s track record was acceptable, as if forgiveness was only elastic enough to stretch to the one but not the other.

It must be said that, despite all that forgiveness doled in his direction by a grateful international community, there is a great deal that we still do not know about McGuinness. For instance, it would be interesting to know what he got up to on Bloody Sunday. More broadly, it would also be interesting to learn whether, by the end of his life, he was genuinely sorry for his actions — a point upon which those who perhaps might know, for instance Alastair Campbell, remain curiously silent.

We are all flawed, though, and do a good deal more harm than we ought to do, and could live our lives in a better way than we do at present. Totting up the sins of the dead is easy; living with charity and forbearance is a lot more difficult. As a Christian, I hope it’s the case that no one is so mired in evil that something good doesn’t, eventually, work its way through. And as the earth closes over what remains of Martin McGuinness, former IRA commander, as it will this afternoon — and as the news broadcasts cut back to the police cordons, the blue flashing lights, the painful images of those people whose loved ones must be so inconsolable today — God grant us the imagination to believe that we all are, or at least could be, better than this.