Return to Recent Articles menu
Martin McGuinness: A political obituary
22 January 2017
Many commentating on Martin McGuinness's retirement as a public representative for Sinn Fein will not be able to resist the cliché of his journey from IRA commander to central architect of the local peace process. Fewer will draw on the metaphor of his present state of ill health and the parlous state of the settlement that was to be his legacy.
My own clearest recollection of Martin is during the attack by loyalist Michael Stone on the funeral of Sean Savage, assassinated by the SAS in Gibraltar. Two grenades exploded at my back and a mourner beside me was shot in the leg. As I retreated with other members of my family I saw Martin and a group of unarmed young men rush past me towards Stone and drive him back.
McGuinness is an extremely brave and determined man. These qualities mean that he will pursue a strategy to its logical conclusion. However advancing a triumph of the will is no guarantee of success.
His base in Derry is of great significance. It had the largest concentration of nationalist workers and also the strongest concentration of the nationalist bourgeoisie. In the early days of the civil rights struggle a frantic battle was fought around the scope and aims of the resistance, a battle eventually won by John Hume and the Catholic Church. When Martin McGuinness came onto the scene he was a militarist innocent of class consciousness and vulnerable through his religiosity.
He fought hard as an IRA commander but when he came up against the limits of military action he was open to persuasion by local capitalists. It is no secret that the peace process came to Derry years before its formal adoption. The ongoing military campaign was exported to rural (and often Unionist) towns and villages in county Derry.
When a class analysis is not accepted all sorts of other explanations for struggle become available. McGuinness accepted absolutely the hocus pocus of conflict resolution and replaced the need to fight imperialism with "equality of the two traditions”- in practice a form of sectarianism that abandons protestant workers to “their own” culture and ascribed to the British a progressive role in the resolution of the national question in Ireland. He pursued these ideas with the same determination that he once had brought to military struggle, following that logic to swear fealty to the Northern state, to the police, welcoming the Queen and urging nationalists to inform on the republican militarists who wanted to fight on.
As he retires from public life we are coming to the limit of that trajectory also.
We are also reaching the zenith of Sinn Fein's fortunes.
A suspension of Stormont would hurt Sinn Fein much more than the Unionists. The only job that it has done efficiently is as a machine for the distribution of bribes and patronage. The army of highly paid special advisors - essentially a state subsidy to run the parties apparatus - is everywhere - even People Before Profit have four SPADs. The unionists benefit also but have many more strings in their bow in their implantation in local business and civic society and the direct sponsorship by Britain.
The internal structure of Sinn Fein will also be changed. At its core is a military organization converted to an electoral one. Members follow the party line because of the credibility of the leader - initially based on military prowess. That means that a new leader will not have the credibility of McGuinness, especially given that he himself failed at the Stormont project.
More seriously an ideology of militarism suppresses class differences. Anger at Stormont and DUP sectarianism is concentrated among the working class nationalists. Middle class Catholics are the great gainers from the peace process. Their anger is strongly tempered by a desire for business as usual. In the short term supporters will rally around the organization. In the longer term there will be questions about the strategy of collaboration.
The ramifications of the McGuinness retirement and the Stormont debacle will move south of the border. Adams own retirement will be brought forward and there will be similar internal strains. There are plenty of alternative leaders, but they all represent a smaller and more radical version of the populist politics that are the trademark of Fianna Fail and will find it more difficult to hold traditional republicans or the inner city working class.
Above all the departure of Martin McGuinness marks a collapse of Sinn Fein strategy over decades - that by simultaneously holding government positions on both sides of the border they would put Irish unity back on the agenda.
Ironically it is the collapse of Stormont that most directly reopens the national question in Ireland.
Return to top of page