Domestic matters prevented me until now from fully watching Eamonn Mallie’s weekend interview with Martin McGuinness, who is currently the Deputy First Minister in the Stormont power-sharing government (temporarily in hiatus) but who is also known for an IRA career that spanned most positions in that organisation, from lowly Volunteer in the Derry Brigade to Chief of Staff.
(If you missed it, you can watch it here.)
Not that you would really know much about the full gamut of Martin’s IRA experience if you were dependent on that interview to educate you. True, Mallie did ask him, given his admission of IRA membership to the Saville inquiry, what it felt like to pull the trigger and send a policeman or soldier to eternity and whether, coming from a devout Catholic family in Derry, he had subsequently made peace with his God, or even himself. Interesting questions which the experienced TV hand diverted with ease.
But there was so much more unasked, both about his IRA career and his involvement in incidents and situations which raise really big questions about Martin McGuinness’ character and integrity which he might have had more difficulty responding to.
Whether this was due to the interviewer’s circumspection or the heavy hand of the legal department at Irish TV (whatever or whoever they are?) can only be guessed at.
Whatever the truth, watching Mallie grill McGuinness was a bit like seeing George Best being quizzed about his life in soccer minus his days with Manchester United, or his struggles with booze or broads. Or watching Babe Ruth being asked about everything except his batting exploits with the Boston Red Sox!
Until TV stations or other broadcasters have the gumption to ask the right questions to characters with a background like Martin McGuinness, I don’t really see the point of such interviews.
Until then, it would be far more honest for interviewers and TV stations to say something like this: “I know, Martin McGuinness, that you won’t give an honest answer to questions dealing with an IRA past that has propelled you into your current position. Let’s be honest you are Deputy First Minister only because you did the business as an IRA leader. But you can’t/won’t admit that because it is embarrassing and inconvenient. So I am not going to bother even pretending to ask the relevant questions.
“Instead I will ask you about Sinn Fein politics, whether you think Mary Lou McDonald really is a carpetbagger, your religion, your family, what you did on your summer holidays, the best dry flies to catch big trout in Co. Donegal, what it was like climbing Mount Errigal with Gerry, and what you like for Sunday breakfast.”
But if the IRA history of Martin McGuinness is going to be covered, it should be done properly, fully and truthfully. If so, then here are some of the questions that any self-respecting and honest journalist should pose to Martin McGuinness:
1) Is it true you were the Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA between 1978 and 1982 and that as military commander of the IRA you approved the assassination of Lord Mountbatten and the Warrenpoint ambush?
2) What was going through your mind, knowing of your involvement in the Mountbatten operation, when you met the Queen? Did you apologise for killing her uncle and did she say anything about it to you? Did either of you blush when you shook hands?
3) You have had to undertake what must have been uncomfortable and conflicting roles since the peace process began, roles that were unprecedented for an Irish republican with your background. You were the first to shake hands with the Queen for instance, the first to attend a banquet at Windsor Castle being another. Some of your former comrades have criticised you heavily for going along with this stuff (unlike Jeremy Corbyn, so far). Does it ever occur to you to ask why it is always you, and never Gerry Adams (with the recent exception of Prince Charles) who was sent along on such occasions?
4) Why were you chosen as Deputy First Minister at Stormont and not Gerry, who after all is your party leader?
5) You told Eamonn Mallie you accepted Gerry Adams’ claim never to have been in the IRA. But you make an equally implausible claim, which is that you left the IRA in 1974. People deride Gerry Adams for his lie. Why should they not deride you for yours?
6) In 1985, according to reports, you succeeded ‘Slab’ Murphy as Northern Commander of the IRA in anticipation of the Libyan arms shipments arriving safely in Ireland. You had been Chief of Staff but had been obliged to step down as a condition of you standing for Sinn Fein in the Prior Assembly election of 1982. Didn’t you feel the 1985 appointment was something of a step down, given that you had already once before occupied that office? So, why then did you accept this post?
7) As Northern Commander you were responsible for some of the most controversial violent incidents in the IRA’s recent history; these included the Enniskillen bombing, the use of human bombs, the Lisnaskea school bus bombing, the bombing of the Falls Rd swimming baths, the killing of the Hanna family and the killing of James & Ellen Sefton. Can I ask whether you did order or approve of these operations and if so, what was the political or military rationale in each case, given that the individual and cumulative effect was to weaken the IRA’s ‘armed struggle’ and strengthen the alternative peace process?
8) The family of alleged IRA informer Frank Hegarty say that you lured him back to Derry from hiding in England with a false promise that he would be safe. Assured by your words he came back and almost immediately was killed by the IRA as an informer. The RUC were on the verge of charging you with his murder when, according to one report, the British intervened in order to safeguard the peace process, and no charges were filed. If this story is true, and you lied to Hegarty to lure him to his death, what does that say about your character? What does it say about the British attitude towards the importance of your role in the subsequent peace process?
9) Throughout the years of the peace process you played the role of the hard military man, a role that helped to re-assure the IRA grassroots that the process would not lead to a sellout. The implication is that the rank and file did not fully trust Gerry Adams but had confidence in you. Do you accept this characterisation and how do you respond to accusations that you misled IRA members, for instance by assuring them that an IRA Convention would be held prior to the 1994 ceasefire, when in fact there was no Convention? If the accusations are correct, what does this say about your character?
I know that some, perhaps quite a lot of my erstwhile media colleagues will be shocked, even scandalised by the idea of asking such questions. But these will be among the questions that will concern future historians, accent on the word future. And perhaps they will want the answer to another question: why didn’t the Irish media ask the man these questions when he was alive, so at least there would be some response on the record. The answer to that question, as to the others I suggest, may be uncomfortable, to say the least.