Last week the world buried Martin McGuinness, the IRA boss who became a peacemaker. Watching the procession go through the streets of Derry, my thoughts turned to his victims and my meetings with the man himself.
A few days ago, Martin McGuinness’s coffin was hoisted on the shoulders of his wife, daughters, sons, and friends for the trip from the hospital bed where he died to his home. The route is a little over one mile long and, according to Northern Irish custom, quite a number of the hundreds of people who surrounded McGuinness’s body took turns in carrying his load. It was raining in Derry, as it often does, and cold. On the pavements and the streets, thousands of people were watching. Some applauding, some with grim determination to keep their hands in their pockets. Some even turned their backs to the procession. Most of them had known the dead man all their lives.
Martin McGuinness was a towering figure in his hometown. When he was still the IRA commander there, his word was law. If Martin decided you had to die, you died. If he singled you out to kill, you killed. Later on, he was one of the architects of the peace, a signatory to the so-called Good Friday Agreement. He started calling people who were against it “traitors.” In Northern Ireland, that description could cost you your life, especially if it had come from The Man himself.
Between the late 1970s and the end of the 1990s, I worked a lot in Northern Ireland as a journalist. Usually, Derry was my home base. Smaller than Belfast, marginally less dangerous. No member of the press could work without meeting McGuinness, or being invited, voluntarily or not, to present their credentials. Although the organization was on street-level mostly run by women, misogyny was widespread in the IRA and Martin laughed at me when we first met. “You think you can stick it out, little girl?” he wondered out loud; and frankly, so did I. I had no idea how to deal with the violence, the anger, the desperation, the poverty, the religious zeal, the lack of compassion. Nor did I have any answers for the generosity I often came across, the solidarity, the loyalty. But I learned. I witnessed, I wrote, and I let Northern Ireland change me. Later, much later, after the Good Friday Agreement had been in place for a while, I decided to write a book. Over time I had met many people who had gone through horrendous trauma and I wanted to know how they had survived. For two years I traveled around Europe and interviewed 27 people who had been involved in many different horrors. Five of them were connected to the Troubles and in their lives Martin McGuinness loomed large. Now the man is dead, I want you to meet them.
For weeks, she tried, but when electricity and gas were cut off and nobody dared to help for fear of reprisals, she had to give up. The siblings were separated and sent to different children’s homes where four of them were sexually abused and all of them were beaten when they cried for their mother.
In 1993, Colin and Wendy Parry were middle-class English people living in Warrington, just west of Manchester, when bombs went off that were placed in bins outside the local shopping center. Their son Tim, 12, who had just recovered from appendicitis, was out buying new soccer shorts and was walking past one of the wastepaper baskets when it exploded. Hours later, his parents were at the hospital meeting the surgeon who was trying to keep their son alive. He had Tim’s blood on his shoes and told them there was very little hope. Five days later Tim died on his mother’s lap, his father holding his hand. Not long after, Colin and Wendy met the parents of 3-year-old Johnathan Ball, who was also killed and visited some of the 56 injured. Colin, who could not take this loss lying down, went into action straight away. He called a press conference, advocating peace, and started lobbying the great and good to get the English government and the parties in Ireland around the table. It was, he said, the only thing he could do to keep Tim close and “make the void less empty.” In the weeks and months afterwards, he became a celebrity, meeting Princess Diana and then American President Bill Clinton. Soon, he was also lovingly surrounded by other victims of bomb attacks from both the IRA and their Protestant enemies. In 2013, he invited Martin McGuinness, the man who had given the order for the attack that killed Tim, to visit him in Warrington. He told him about his son, showed him his room, his blood-stained T-shirt. When McGuinness died, Colin told the media that he would never forgive the IRA boss, but that he believed Martin had been “sincere in his desire for peace.”
In 1974, Paddy Hill was among tens of thousands of Irish migrants trying to make a living in Birmingham, England. He was also married with six children. At the end of November that year, a bomb exploded in a local bar killing 19 people and wounding almost 200. As usual, the IRA claimed responsibility that same evening. The next day, Paddy was having a beer with some mates waiting for a ferry to Belfast. They were expected to attend a funeral the next day, but were arrested and taken to a police station near the harbor. Soon, it became clear that the coppers were intent on framing them for the bombing. The six friends were beaten up, even water boarded, for days, with officers pressing for a confession. “We want a guilty man. Our superiors want a guilty man. It might as well be you,” they said to Paddy Hill. A few months later, the men were convicted to life in prison. Only after 16 years and the remarkable quest of criminal lawyer Gareth Peirce were the “Birmingham Six” released. Hill would never really recover. His anger was mainly directed at the government and the police, although there was some left for McGuinness’s organization that had “left him to rot” in jail for all those years.
The city was brought to a standstill with thousands lining the route. I have walked and driven those same streets often. Sometimes to bury IRA victims, sometimes to say goodbye to people who were killed by other parties in the conflict.
Then there were Seamus and Helen McKendry. When I met them in 2000, they were living in a house on top of a hill with a baseball bat behind the door and big dogs prowling the perimeter of the fence. They were scared and had good reason to be. In 1972, when Helen was 15 years old, a British soldier was shot in front of their house. Helen’s mother, Jean McConville, ran outside to try and help, and cradled the man while he died. The next day, four women knocked on the door while Jean was in the bath. They put a gun to her head and told her to get dressed and come with them. While some of Helen’s nine brothers and sisters screamed and tried to stop what was happening, Jean was pushed in a car and driven away. She was never seen again. Because the children’s father had died from cancer the year before, Helen was on her own trying to keep the family together. For weeks, she tried, but when electricity and gas were cut off and nobody dared to help for fear of reprisals, she had to give up. The siblings were separated and sent to different children’s homes where four of them were sexually abused and all of them were beaten when they cried for their mother. When Helen grew up and married Seamus, they started a campaign to find out what had happened to Jean. It put them in direct confrontation with most of their neighbors who were scared of IRA reprisals. One day Seamus found a note on their car describing how the writer would slowly kill their youngest child. In 1998, Helen was picked up by the local IRA branch, blindfolded, put in a car, and sat on a chair in an abandoned house. There, masked men admitted that their organization had killed Jean “by accident.” They did not tell Helen where her mother’s body was, nor offered any apologies or compensation. Only in 2003, after a severe storm washed the sand off Shelling Hill Beach in Co Louth, were Jean’s remains uncovered. Nobody was ever convicted for her death. After McGuinness died, Helen’s brother, Michael, who was eleven when his mother disappeared, said he was “sad for McGuinness’s family.” Martin McGuinness had gone “from one extreme to another,” but “tried his best” during the peace process, Michael big-heartedly claimed.
On Friday, Martin McGuinness was buried in Derry. Bill Clinton attended, Tony Blair, Irish presidents past and present, and most of Stormont’s parliamentarians. The city was brought to a standstill with thousands lining the route. I have walked and driven those same streets often. Sometimes to bury IRA victims, sometimes to say goodbye to people who were killed by other parties in the conflict. For a few years after the Troubles ended, so-called “volunteers” from both sides committed suicide at a great rate of knots. Now the war was over, there was less call for men whose only skill was using a weapon and they felt superfluous and useless. In a country that has been steeped in civil war for so long, the lines between victims and perpetrators have started to blur. But responsibility is still responsibility and power is power.
Martin McGuinness was, of course, a peacemaker. Without him, the war in Northern Ireland might have lasted much longer than it did. And without him there now it might start again. That was his positive contribution. But as the stories of his victims show, there was a dark side to the man as well. Let’s not turn him into an Irish Mandela. He is not that, and would probably laugh at the description himself. The man is dead. But for some, that will never be the end of it.