Death of Martin McGuinness: When Is a Terrorist Redeemed?

Martin McGuinness has died and if you were watching the BBC today, you would think he was a peacemaker that never harmed a fly. That for a long time he oversaw a pretty ruthless paramilitary organization, the Irish Republican Army, that killed 1500 people in campaigns of bombing public places, was pretty much  missing.

Martin McGuinness in the days of terror.
Martin McGuinness in the days of terror.

The word terrorist never passed the newscasters lips. No mention that McGuinness had employed the classic definition of terrorism: killing civilians to obtain a political goal.

This is not to excoriate the broadcaster, and there was no general blackout on McGuinness’ past–plenty of other outlets noted McGuinness’ history of attacking civilians. It simply points out the difficulties in reconciling the terror strategy with the final outcome, in this case eventual peace in Northern Ireland in which McGuinness played a key role in establishing and maintaining.

This is not the first time the ambiguities inherent in conflicts with what used to be called national liberation movements created a need to in some ways come to terms with terrorism. Or at least pretending to. I remember observing the pained look on the face of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin back in 1993, when he was more or less impelled to shake the hand of Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization leader. It was during the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords on the White House lawn.

For most Israelis, Arafat was first and foremost a killer of civilians, including children: making peace was one thing, shaking hands, quite another. (Not a few Palestinians felt the same about Rabin, himself involved in ruthlessly clearing Palestinian villages of their Arab inhabitants during the 1948 Middle East War.)

I once interviewed Saadi Yacef, a commander of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN in its French-language acronym), the movement that drove France out from its long colonial adventure in the North African country. Terror killings of civilians was a prime FLN tactic. Yacef, on whom the film Battle of Algiers was based, said he regrets not using the tactic: it was proper to the cause of liberation, he said, against an occupier that also engaged in unspeakable violence.

“We killed women, yes, and took fetuses out of their wombs,” he told me. “But ours was for liberation. This was our only means against a cruel enemy.”

Yacef tried to distinguish the FLN campaign from the contemporary wave of terrorism practiced by Islamist groups.  Unlike the methods of liberation movements, the radical jihadists are in it only for “destruction,” he said, and lack the popular backing that could possibly justify their tactics even  in the eyes of possible sympathizers–say marginalized Sunni Muslims in Iraq.

In an interview in January, McGuinness basically said took the same tack: the enemy– in his case, the British,–was harsh and that there was wide support to retaliate. “The fact that many young people like myself, supported by many thousands of people – I’m not saying it was a majority – decided to fight back, I don’t regret any of that,” he said.

He once compared his transition from violence to  peacemaker to the political journey taken by Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid leader.

Certainly in Northern Ireland, there was wanton violence on all sides: the Irish Catholic IRA, the Protestant Unionists and the British government and armed forces. Most everyone thinks the current, two-decade old peace process in Northern Ireland is worth preserving, regardless of the past of the principles involved. Perhaps something similar is going on in Colombia, where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia has given up its long guerrilla and terror war against the government in a controversial peace deal.

In any event, the decision to work for peace seemed made it possible to redeem McGuinness in the eyes of many of his former enemies. In 2012, Queen Elizabeth, whose cousin Lord Mountbatten was blown to bits by an IRA bomb hidden on a fishing boat in 1979, when McGuinness was a rebel commander, shook his hand. Three passengers on the boat also died; two of them children.

Still, it is hard for direct victims to reconcile themselves with forgiveness. Some wanted the IRA to account for  its hand in killings and disappearances, and not just rely on their conversion to the peace process as a means of polishing its reputation. For now, neither the ex-Ira, their Protestant rivals nor the British government seem interested in burrowing fully into the sordid past of what everyone in the UK simply calls “The Troubles.”

The Guardian McGuinness obituary.

Victims reactions.

My interview with Saadi Yacef.




Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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