I read recently, in a piece penned for The Belfast Telegraph by Malachi O’Doherty, that if he had lived long enough to witness Barry McElduff’s Kingsmills video, the late Martin McGuinness would have expelled the West Tyrone MP from Sinn Fein.
As Malachi put it:
(McGuinness’) project included assuaging unionist anxiety about the IRA. We can’t know how he would have dealt with Barry McElduff. I suspect he would have kicked him out of the party.
This sort of judgement derives from a natural tendency when dealing with dead enemies who changed their ways at the end, or appeared to have done so, to view them through rose-tinted glasses, to ascribe to them qualities they may never really have had in life.
The man in question, after all, had spent a large slice of his life lying, to both friend and foe. And if the late Catholic Bishop of Derry, Eddie Daly, is to be believed was capable of the most monstrous, self-serving deceit.
So is Malachi indulging in wishful thinking? Or was this an outrageous rewrite of (McGuinness’) history? How about a shallow and inadequate assessment of a much more complex character?
Let’s deal with the essence of the Kingsmills’ massacre. It was carried out – and I think most observers agree on this – in response to an outburst of Loyalist violence which had seen six Catholics – three men from each of two families – shot dead in their rural homes by the UVF in the days beforehand.
The Kingsmill massacre that followed was intended as a deterrent by the Provos, saying this to the UVF: ‘this is what happens to yours when you do that to ours; continue down this road and you’ll see more’. I have argued elsewhere that this captured the Defenderist essence that in large measure defined the Provisional movement, at that time as now.
There were other examples. I would include the ‘Siege of St Matthews’ and the mayhem and death caused by the IRA in North Belfast on the same June 1970 day in that category.
This is how Loyalists saw those incidents and my own research tends to award their view considerable merit, which is that the violence that day was designed to send a simple message to Belfast Catholics; forget August 1969, we now have your back.
Martin McGuinness was still in the Officials when all that happened and was in Portlaoise prison when Kingsmill took place. So no direct responsibility for those events can be laid at his door.
But Kingmills spawned a cousin, a more distant relative for sure but no less deadly. In January 1981 the IRA shot dead the 87-year old former Stormont Speaker, Sir Norman Stronge and his son James in the library of their home, Tynan Abbey in Co Armagh. They then burned the mansion to the ground.
The Stronge’s had been singled out because a few days beforehand, UDA gunmen had shot and seriously wounded civil rights and H Blocks campaigner Bernadette McAliskey and her husband Michael at their Coalisland, Co Tyrone cottage.
By a miracle they survived but the IRA nonetheless decided to kill the Stronge’s to send a message very similar to the one delivered by Kingsmills. At Kingsmills it was: ‘kill ordinary Catholics and we will kill ordinary Protestants’. At Tynan Abbey it was: ‘go for our leaders and we’ll go for yours’.
And who was Chief of Staff at the time of the massacre at Tynan Abbey? Well, none other than Martin McGuinness.
Given the profile of the victims and the likely political fallout it is very possible that the local IRA sought a green light from Martin McGuinness himself, since he was the bossman. In other words he may have sent the gunmen on their way that fateful and bloody night.
At the very least McGuinness would have had to justify the action within the IRA’s leadership circles afterwards although I would be astonished to hear that criticism or reservations were voiced by anyone at the time, not least by McGuinness himself.
The truth is that within the Provo community, and outside it as well, actions like Kingsmills and Tynan Abbey were popular at the time.
So, if Martin McGuinness were alive today and was pressed to follow John O’Dowd’s example (and the key aspect of John O’Dowd’s much-praised role in the post-McElduff controversy is that he was never associated with the IRA, was never convicted of any IRA activity and never spent a day in jail for the IRA), I suspect he would make a straightforward calculation.
It might go like this: ‘If I was to condemn McElduff and kick him out of SF, how will that go down with my old comrades, especially those with long and accurate memories. Would they praise me, as the media would, or would they accuse me of disowning them and all we stood for? Would people say Sinn Fein are going soft? And what hay would the dissidents make with that?’
On the other hand if he was to endorse Malachi O’Doherty and expel McElduff, we could truly say that Sinn Fein was finally and fully free of its IRA past. But, conspicuously, that has not happened.
This, at the end of the day, may be the single most important lesson from the Barry McElduff affair.
Sinn Fein’s unwillingness to do what Malachi O’Doherty believes Martin McGuiinness would do, tells us that the IRA have still not gone away.
But you knew that anyway, didn’t you?