Martin McGuinness: From “Super-Terrorist” to Super Statesman

Martin McGuinness followed along the familiar trail of so many enemies of Britain’s weary colonial history. A “super-terrorist” becomes a super-statesman. Jomo Kenyatta comes to mind. And Archbishop Makarios. And of course, Menachem Begin. With blood on their hands, they pass through that mist of nobility bestowed by colonial power and former rulers – and re-emerge as statesmen of compromise, eloquence, even humour.

I’ve never been sure they really changed that much. Begin blew up the King David Hotel, murdered two British army sergeants because the Brits were executing Irgun fighters, and became Prime Minister of Israel. He signed a peace agreement with Egypt, met Margaret Thatcher – then invaded Lebanon in 1982: 17,000 died.

In fact, most of these folk recalled their past with a certain amount of caution. “Father of the Nation”, they liked to be called – although that hardly applied to McGuinness. Michael Collins went through a similar transmogrification. There he was, killing Churchill’s Cairo Gang intelligence men in Dublin and then sitting in Downing Street with Lloyd George and Churchill himself, who told of meeting Collins whose hands had “touched directly the springs of terrible deeds”. Doubtless, he would have said the same of McGuinness.

In 1972 I saw him first, standing beside a table on the Creggan – already no-go Derry after Bloody Sunday – for a frantic press conference. They said he was the IRA commander in Derry (he was actually number two), but he was a rather frightening young man, 22 at the time, high cheekbones, fluffy, curly hair, red-faced, sharp, narrow eyes, unsmiling. A very dangerous man, I thought at the time – to his enemies, at least. There was a rifle in the room, though I don’t think he touched it. People later said it was a Kalashnikov, but there weren’t many AKs around at the time and I rather think it was an old American Garand.

The British were claiming at the time that McGuinness was the most wanted man in Derry or Northern Ireland or all of Ireland – but they did that on a regular basis to all their most tenacious enemies. That’s what they once called Begin. That’s what they said about Collins in the early 1920s, who passed through that infamous mist of nobility when he signed the grim Treaty which the Brits had prepared for him, Griffith and the others. It cost him his life, of course, so he never travelled to Buckingham Palace to meet the King. But Collins did meet James Craig, one of Northern Ireland’s most sectarian Protestant prime ministers, before he was killed by his own people. Avoiding assassination, McGuinness was to sit down with Ian Paisley and his cronies and become deputy minister of the state he tried so hard to destroy. That alone was worth a handshake from the British monarch.


But we should not be too romantic about violent men who pass through the archway of British political acceptance. Sadat was a German spy in Cairo in the Second World War. Then he became the beloved peace-maker. Nasser was at first greeted by Eden, who only later called him the Mussolini of the Nile, although Nasser did for the British Empire at Suez. Yasser Arafat was a “super-terrorist” when I first met him in Beirut in the 1980s, blathering on about the “Zionist military junta”; then he signed the Oslo agreement and became a “super-statesman” and shook hands with Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin. Yet under the brutal Sharon, he reverted to “super-terrorist” status, up to and including his moment of death. What moral transformartions! His body must have been “spinning” even before it was put in the grave.

It’s a heady, giddy business to undergo these constant conversions. Saddam was our man when he sent his Iraqi legions into revolutionary Iran in 1980 but then became the Hitler of the Tigris when he invaded the wrong country (Kuwait) 10 years later and got bombed for it, and was then invaded in 2003 for the one crime he didn’t commit (9/11). Off with his head, we cried, and the noose surely strangled him. Then take Muammar Gaddafi, whose Libyan coup was at first welcomed by the Foreign Office. But then he went a bit mad, issuing Trump-like statements of mind-numbing inanity, and then tried to fix up McGuinness and his mates with explosives and organised a bomb in a Berlin nightclub where it killed an American serviceman – and then got bombed by Ronald Reagan who dubbed him the “Mad Dog of the Middle East”.

But the “Mad Dog” outlived Saddam and got slobbered over by the Brits for deconstructing nuclear weapons he never had, and Saint Tony bestowed a kiss upon him and all was well until the Libyans decided they’d had enough and the much-kissed Muammar was butchered by a mob. No wonder he had a strange, puzzled look in his eyes at the time. Then there was Bashar al-Assad, son of the ferocious Hafez, invited to Bastille Day but then – post-Arab Awakening – loathed by the French, whose foreign minister declared that he did not deserve to live “on this earth”. The Quai d’Orsay did not suggest which particular planet he should fly to. But reader alert: with the Europeans back-peddling on their demands for his overthrow and Putin welcoming him to the Kremlin, we may yet see Bashar back in the halls of western Europe.

McGuinness, of course, maintained his statesmanship to the end, seeing off the grousing old Paisley, watching Peter Robinson slip in the Unionist mire and then observing the Democratic Unionists swamped in financial scandal. A good time to go, you might say, and join all the other “most wanted men” in the sky. But one of them, we would do well to remember, had a wanted poster all his own more than 100 years ago, way back in the Boar War: his name was Winston Churchill. And much to talk about they’ll have, I’m sure.

More articles by:

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

March 21, 2018
Paul Street
Time is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy from the American Oligarchy?
Mel Goodman
The Great Myth of the So-Called “Adults in the Room”
Chris Floyd
Stumbling Blocks: Tim Kaine and the Bipartisan Abettors of Atrocity
Eric Draitser
The Political Repression of the Radical Left in Crimea
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Threatens Wider War Against the Kurds
John Steppling
It is Us
Thomas Knapp
Death Penalty for Drug Dealers? Be Careful What You Wish for, President Trump
Manuel García, Jr.
Why I Am a Leftist (Vietnam War)
Isaac Christiansen
A Left Critique of Russiagate
Howard Gregory
The Unemployment Rate is an Inadequate Reporter of U.S. Economic Health
Ramzy Baroud
Who Wants to Kill Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah?
Roy Morrison
Trouble Ahead: The Trump Administration at Home and Abroad
Roger Hayden
Too Many Dead Grizzlies
George Wuerthner
The Lessons of the Battle to Save the Ancient Forests of French Pete
Binoy Kampmark
Fictional Free Trade and Permanent Protectionism: Donald Trump’s Economic Orthodoxy
Rivera Sun
Think Outside the Protest Box
March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
John Pilger
Skripal Case: a Carefully-Constructed Drama?
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us
Nomi Prins 
Jared Kushner, RIP: a Political Obituary for the President’s Son-in-Law
Georgina Downs
The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning
Dean Baker
Trump and the Federal Reserve
Colin Todhunter
The Strategy of Tension Towards Russia and the Push to Nuclear War
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
US Empire on Decline
Ralph Nader
Ahoy America, Give Trump a Taste of His Own Medicine Starting on Trump Imitation Day
Robert Dodge
Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by Divesting from Them
Laura Finley
Shame on You, Katy Perry
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography