Martin McGuinness died today at the age of 66 due to heart-related issues. There has been a mixture of responses to his unexpected passing. Many are delighted that there is ‘one less terrorist in this world.’ Others are commending his ‘bravery’ during the Northern Ireland peace process. He certainly did sacrifice the bullet for the ballot box in the end, but he was forced into a peace process Sinn Fein did not originally want. He was a converted pragmatist. He was a heresthetic.
What is a heresthetic? For those of you who have studied political theory at university, you would have encountered the structure/agency theory. This is when politicians (the agents or actors) are restricted by the ‘structure’ they are operating in. Structure often refers to factors that are beyond a politician’s control. But heresthetics are agents who manipulate the structure they are operating in to their advantage and prevent themselves from being controlled by it. It originates from the idea that King Cnut (1016-35) believed he could command the sea to do as he pleases. The forces of nature that controlled the sea were the ‘structure’ that prevented Cnut from bending it to his will, but as a heresthetic, the Saxon king believed the opposite.
This theory helps to explain why McGuinness, like many other of his IRA/Sinn Fein comrades, were forced into the peace process. The IRA had been fighting an unsuccessful war against the British since the 1960s/70s. Their attempts to ‘liberate’ Northern Ireland through military force were failing. Ultimately, the strength of the British military and lack of support from Northern Ireland’s population for a united Ireland were the ‘structure’ that prevented the IRA from achieving their objective. Another factor that restricted them was the lack of interest in peace among paramilitary groups.
The turning point was when Bobby Sands was elected in 1981 during the Fermanagh South and Tyrone by-election. Although he died, this persuaded Sinn Fein that they could gain more support for their aims from nationalists who voted for the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) through the ballot box, as opposed to the bullet. This is why they did so well in the 1982 Assembly elections. Add to this the persistent efforts of Father Alex Reid and SDLP leader John Hume in 1988 to persuade Gerry Adams and McGuinness that peace was the only way forward.
The Cold War shattered Sinn Fein’s obsession that the British used Northern Ireland as a base during the twentieth century. Thatcher’s Northern Ireland secretary Peter Brooke stated in 1989 that opening up dialogue with the IRA was possible. The ‘structure’ changed for Adams and McGuinness. The British government was no longer the enemy, or an obstacle. The only way to achieve a united Ireland was to change the final ‘structure’, the people of Northern Ireland, and that could only be achieved through democratic elections, not violence.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Adams and McGuinness engaged in dialogue with the British and Irish governments made possible by the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and Brooke’s insistence that this conflict ends in a post-Soviet world. Of course, there were further obstacles, or ‘structures’, along the way for Sinn Fein. John Major’s government demanded that the IRA be completely disarmed before they enter talks. It would be difficult for the nationalist leaders to ask the IRA to sacrifice everything they fought for. Even Tony Blair could not escape the Mitchell Report 1996 that was commissioned on behalf of Major by Senator George Mitchell, which requested the IRA surrender their weapons in parallel with peace talks.
But their presence in the IRA movement allowed heresthetics Adams and McGuinness to manipulate that structure to their advantage and persuade them of the need for peace. Their efforts paid off as they overtook the SDLP as Northern Ireland’s largest nationalist party in the 2003 Assembly elections due to their support for disarmament. Eventually the IRA completely surrendered their weapons in 2005. McGuinness became deputy first minister with his former rival, Ian Paisley, in 2007. Power-sharing was restored to the region after it collapsed in 2002 due to David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party pulling out of a coalition with Sinn Fein and the SDLP after the former was caught using Assembly offices for dodgy purposes.
Adams and McGuinness manipulated their ‘structures’ to their advantage. The British government was no longer an obstacle to a united Ireland and they worked with Blair to achieve peace and convert their IRA colleagues to the cause. They also convinced many people to lend them their support in countless elections after 2003, slowly persuading their countrymen to support a united Ireland. They came closer to achieving this in the Assembly elections this year when they almost toppled the Democratic Unionist Party as the country’s largest party.
But do not mistake this article as praise for the man. If he had his way, he would still be fighting an unwinnable war with the British until he liberated Ireland his way. McGuinness was a heresthetic. Nothing more, nothing less. That in no way excuses the crimes he was never, ever served justice for. It was only because he was restricted by his ‘structure’ that he converted to peace. And when he realised violence was not the solution, he changed the structure to his advantage. But that will not pardon him of the part he played in ruining the lives of numerous Irish men and women.