From Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, to Tony Blair, John Major and Ian Paisley Jnr, there was a rare moment of agreement in the politics of Northern Ireland yesterday. Martin McGuinness, they all agreed, was a bad man who turned good.
He was a man of war who turned into a man of peace. He was an evil terrorist in his early life, but he found a degree of redemption by playing a key part in building the peace process and renouncing violence. This has been the dominant media narrative of the past 24 hours. It is as if there were two Martins: the savage IRA man and the noble peacemaker. Such was McGuinness’s rehabilitation with the British establishment in his later years that the queen sent his widow a message of condolence yesterday, and Jonathan Powell, who was chief of staff to Tony Blair, revealed that he invited McGuinness to his wedding.
For me, however, there is only one Martin McGuinness. And unlike almost everyone who spoke to the media yesterday, I admired his early life more than his later life as one of the architects of the so-called peace process.
Martin McGuinness was born in Derry in a then Orange state that did not want his kind: he was a Catholic. In the Six Counties, Catholics suffered discrimination in housing and jobs and were denied political equality. Such second-class treatment was especially pronounced in Derry City, where the electoral boundaries were gerrymandered to ensure a permanent majority of Protestant Unionist representatives in what was clearly a majority Catholic, nationalist town.
The British government was quite happy to oversee a situation where multiple votes were awarded to wealthy Protestant landlords, giving Unionists a clear electoral advantage over Derry’s majority working-class Catholic population. This blatant gerrymandering and discrimination gave rise to the famous slogan of the civil-rights movement that emerged in the late 1960s: ‘One Man, One Vote.’ McGuinness joined this movement.
Its demands were utterly modest and reasonable: for equal voting rights and an end to anti-Catholic discrimination in housing and jobs that created a situation where a Catholic was more than twice as likely as a Protestant to be unemployed. Imagine the outcry there would be today if such inequality existed in any part of the UK. Yet the late Sixties peaceful marchers for civil rights were met with brute force by a sectarian police force that was later joined by British soldiers using lead bullets. The response by British forces to Derry Catholics’ peaceful demands was internment without trial and incidents like Bloody Sunday in January 1972, when 14 unarmed demonstrators were shot down in cold blood by the British Parachute Regiment.
These events, barely mentioned in the establishment eulogies to McGuinness, explain why McGuinness and others like him got involved in politics and then eventually joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He concluded, as did many young men in Derry and Belfast, that if they could not achieve equal rights through peaceful demonstrations, then they would have to do away with the sectarian Unionist state that gave rise to and institutionalised their discrimination.