Martin McGuinnes: The legacy of a ‘peacemaker’

Today it was announced that Martin McGuinness, former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and IRA commander passed away. He was hailed as a ‘peacemaker’ and a man who led Republicanism from the armalite to the ballot box; one of the ‘chuckle brothers’. What will his legacy be?

‘Bloody Friday’

On 21st July 1972 at least twenty bombs exploded in the space of eighty minutes, most within a half hour period. The majority were car bombs and most targeted infrastructure – especially the transport network. Nine people were killed, including two British soldiers and five civilians, while 130 were injured – some of them horrifically mutilated. Of those injured, 77 were women and children.

The event would come to be known as ‘Bloody Friday’.

Just 10 days later on 31st July 1972 three car bombs exploded mid-morning on the Main Street of Claudy in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The attack killed nine civilians. The first bomb, hidden inside a stolen Ford Cortina, exploded at 10:15 outside McElhinney’s bar and store on Main Street. Six people were killed by this bomb; among the dead were an eight-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy. A second bomb, hidden inside a stolen Morris minivan parked outside the post office on Main Street, was spotted by a police officer, who then began directing people away from the area towards Church Street. At 10:30, a bomb hidden inside another stolen minivan detonated outside the Beaufort Hotel on Church Street. The bomb outside the post office exploded almost simultaneously, killing three people, including a 16-year-old boy injured in the first blast.

The kidnapping and murder of Jean McConville

Jean McConville was a woman from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who was kidnapped and shot dead by the Provisional IRA and secretly buried in County Louth in the Republic of Ireland in 1972. She was wrongly accused by the IRA of passing information to British forces.

On the night of her disappearance, four young women took McConville from her home at gunpoint and she was driven to an unknown location. Dolours Price admitted that she was one of those involved in driving her across the border. McConville was killed by a gunshot to the back of the head.

McConville’s seven youngest children, including six-year-old twins, survived on their own in the flat, cared for by their 15-year-old sister Helen. After three weeks, the hungry family was visited by a stranger, who gave them Jean’s purse, with 52 pence and her three rings in it. Her terrified children were left to fend for themselves for a month, across the Christmas period, before being scattered to the wind by social services when Jean’s disappearance was widely reported and acted upon.

Her body remained undiscovered for 40 years until it was exposed by a storm.

The Birmingham Pub Bombings

On 21st November 1974, bombs exploded in two Birmingham pubs. 21 people were killed and 182 injured. Many of those wounded were left permanently disabled, including one young man who lost both legs, and a young woman who was blinded by shrapnel. The majority of the dead and wounded were young people between the ages of 17 and 30, including a young couple on their first date, and two Irishmen, brothers Desmond and Eugene Reilly (aged 21 and 23 respectively). The widow of Desmond Reilly gave birth to his first child four months after his death. One of the victims, 18-year-old Maxine Hambleton, had only entered the Tavern in the Town to hand out tickets to friends for her housewarming party. She was killed seconds after entering the pub and had been standing directly beside the bomb when it exploded, killing her instantly. Her friend, 17-year-old Jane Davis, was the youngest victim of the bombing

The Provisional Irish Republican Army have never officially admitted responsibility for the Birmingham pub bombings, but a former senior officer of the organisation confessed to their involvement in 2014. Five members of the Provisional IRA have admitted to committing the Birmingham pub bombings, relying on a clause in the Good Friday Agreement offering immunity from prosecution. Two of these men have since died and a further two have been promised immunity.

The Kingsmill Massacre

On 5th January 1976 Gunmen stopped a minibus carrying eleven Protestant workmen outside Kingsmill, lined them up alongside it and shot them. Only one victim survived, despite having been shot 18 times.

A 2011 report by the Historical Enquiries Team found that members of the Provisional IRA carried out the attack, despite the organisation being on ceasefire.

The murder of Jeffery Agate

Jeffery Agate was a well-liked and respected figure in both DuPont and the Londonderry community. He was shot dead by members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army outside his home at Talbot Park, Londonderry as he returned from work on the evening of February 2nd, 1977.

Raymond McClean wrote in The Road to Bloody Sunday that “Jeff Agate was an honest and just human being of the highest calibre. His assassination by the IRA left me in total disbelief and disgust.” Agate’s killing prompted an enormous outpouring of public grief that culminated in a mass protest at Guildhall Square in Derry and united people from all communities at a time of heightened sectarian tension.

His widow, Alice Vera Agate (née Dand) returned to her native Newcastle upon Tyne where she lived in relative isolation until her death in 1994.

Agate’s murder was the first in a series of IRA attacks on businessmen. The IRA claimed that “Those involved in the management of the economy serve British interests. They represent and maintain economic interests which make the war necessary.”

The La Mon Restaurant Bombing

On 17th February 1978, La Mon hotel was struck by a large incendiary bomb, containing a napalm-like substance, outside one of the restaurant’s windows. There were 450 diners, hotel staff and guests inside the building. The IRA members had tried to send warnings by telephone, but were unable to do so until nine minutes before it detonated. The blast created a fireball, killing twelve people and injuring thirty more, many of whom were severely burnt.

Twelve people were killed, having been virtually burnt alive, and a further 30 were injured, many of them critically. Some of the wounded lost limbs, but for the most part received severe burns. One badly burnt survivor described the inferno inside the restaurant as “like a scene from hell”, whilst another who lost her daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law, Ian McCracken, said the blast was “like the sun had exploded in front of my eyes”. There was further pandemonium after the lights had gone out and choking black smoke filled the room. The survivors, with their hair and clothing on fire, rushed to escape the burning room. It took firemen almost two hours to put out the blaze. The dead included eleven Protestant civilians and one RUC officer. Half of the victims were young married couples. Most of the dead and injured were members of the Irish Collie Club and the Northern Ireland Junior Motor Cycle Club, which were holding their yearly dinner dances in the Peacock Room and Gransha Room respectively. The former took the full force of the explosion and subsequent fire; many of those who died had been seated closest to the window where the bomb had gone off. Some of the injured were still receiving treatment 20 years later.

The hotel had been targeted by the IRA as part of its firebomb campaign against commercial targets.

The murder of Mary Travers

Mary Travers was a teacher who was shot dead on 8th April 1984 by Provisional IRA gunmen trying to assassinate her father, Thomas, a Catholic magistrate. Mary Travers was 22 at the time. She, her parents and siblings had left St Brigid’s Catholic Church in Derryvolgie Avenue in south Belfast when two gunmen opened fire. Mary Travers was shot once through the back and her father was shot six times. One gunman brought his gun to point-blank range at her mother’s face and attempted to fire twice, but the gun jammed.

“In 2011 we are told to put the past behind us and move on,” Paul Travers, Mary’s brother,  said. “I go home every year to visit my family and notice the murals to the hunger strikers are lovingly maintained. My sister Mary did not starve herself to death. She was murdered by those who now claim to be the ‘peacemakers’. Mary has no mural. However, her memory is as alive to me now as it was 27 years ago, when I travelled with her bloodied body in the ambulance to the Ulster Hospital. It is the same for the other victims of the Troubles.”

“You compare yourselves to Nelson Mandela. Well then, do as he did, if you are brave enough. Embrace the need for genuine truth and reconciliation and support the very institutions, such as the Historical Enquiries Team, that have been established to find it. Don’t ignore them. Tell us who committed these foul atrocities. It seems to me that you selectively support those aspects of the 1998 peace agreement that suit you and not the ones that don’t. You did the same thing during the Troubles. It is not acceptable now. You are the ones who will not move on. You are the ones who perpetuate hurt and promote your brand of hatred. You are the ones who fear the truth. What are you scared of, now you no longer have your guns?”

The Remembrance Day Bombing

On 8th November 1987 a Provisional Irish Republican Army bomb exploded near the Enniskillen’s war memorial during a Remembrance Sunday ceremony, which was being held to commemorate British military war dead. Eleven people (ten civilians and a police officer), many of them old age pensioners, were killed and 63 were injured. The IRA said it had made a mistake and that its target had been the British soldiers parading to the memorial. It blew out the wall of the Reading Rooms—where many of the victims were standing, burying them under rubble and hurling masonry towards the gathered crowd.

Eleven people were killed by the Provisional IRA that day, including three married couples. The dead were Wesley and Bertha Armstrong, Kitchener and Jessie Johnston, William and Agnes Mullan, John Megaw, Georgina Quinton, Marie Wilson, Samuel Gault and Edward Armstrong Edward Armstrong was a serving Royal Ulster Constabulary officer and Gault had recently left the force. Gordon Wilson, whose daughter Marie died in the blast and who was himself injured, went on to become a peace campaigner and member of Seanad Éireann. The twelfth fatality, Ronnie Hill, died after spending 13 years in a coma. Sixty-three people were injured, including thirteen children.

The Murder of Gillian Johnston

Gillian Johnston was a 21-year-old chemist and shop worker from Tonaghgorm She was engaged for two years, having dated her fiancé since she was fifteen. On March 18th 1988 Johnston and her fiance were sitting in her father’s car, outside her home, when members of the IRA murdered her by firing 47 bullets into Gillian, killing her and wounding her fiance.

The IRA later claimed the murder was a mistake and that the intended target had been Johnston’s brother, whom they had claimed was a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). The IRA later stated it had been mistaken about Johnston’s brother as well

The Murders of Nick Spanos and Stephen Melrose

Nick Spanos (28) and Stephen Melrose (24) were Australian lawyers, based in London. They were in the Netherlands on a four-day holiday with Vicky Coss (Spanos’s girlfriend) and Lyndal Melrose (Stephen’s wife). On the night of 27 May 1990, the two couples had a meal at a restaurant in the town of Roermond, near the border with Germany. The town was popular with off-duty British servicemen stationed in Germany; the Royal Air Force (RAF) bases of RAF Wildenrath, RAF Bruggen and JHQ Rheindahlen are nearby. As they returned to their car, at about 11pm, Spanos and Melrose were shot dead by two men clad in black with automatic weapons. The women were unhurt. The car used by the gunmen was found burnt-out in Belgium. The IRA claimed responsibility, but had mistaken the target.

In August 2010, Stephen Melrose’s parents and sister visited Stormont to “find answers about his murder”. They were greeted by Ulster Unionist Party MLA, David McNarry, but denied a meeting by both deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness and Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams. Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Melrose’s sister, Helen Jackson, said the refusals of McGuinness and Adams “spoke volumes.” She went on to say that:

“We feel that, basically, justice was never done. The people who killed Stephen are walking the street, living life, like us. How can that happen? We are just wondering how the system works, that that can be allowed to happen. Stephen was a lawyer, he deserves justice, everybody does.”

Eighty-year-old Roy Melrose stated:

“We just wanted to find out if we could get any answers as to why the murderers of our son were let off. We feel that time heals a lot. We’ve looked at it that our son is a hero, that helps us a lot, thinking that way. He is a hero. I think there seems to be a lot of forgotten victims.”

The Second Warrington Bomb

At 12:25, 20th of March 1993, two bombs exploded on Bridge Street in Warrington, about 100 yards apart. The blasts happened within a minute of each other. One exploded outside Boots and McDonald’s, and one outside the Argos catalogue store. The area was crowded with shoppers. Witnesses said that shoppers fled from the first explosion into the path of the second. It was later found that the bombs had been placed inside cast-iron litter bins, causing large amounts of shrapnel. Buses were organised to ferry people away from the scene and 20 paramedics and crews from 17 ambulances were sent to deal with the aftermath.

Three-year-old Johnathan Ball died at the scene. He had been in town with his babysitter, shopping for a Mother’s Day card. The second victim, 12-year-old Tim Parry, was gravely wounded. He died on 25 March 1993 when doctors switched his life support machine off, having asked permission to do so from his family, after tests had found minimal brain activity. Fifty-four other people were injured, four of them seriously.

Jonathan Ball’s dying words to his father were, “Goodbye Daddy, I’ll be a good boy.”

We will remember

The Troubles was a dark, dirty, petty and traumatising time in Northern Ireland. No one engaged in the conflict did so with clean hands and unblemished records. There are countless loyalist atrocities we could chalk up alongside this small portion of IRA ones. But today Martin McGuinness is being held up as a ‘peacemaker’. The sad truth is that in pursuit of a story of ‘redemption’, the rebel who became a law maker, we are ignoring the painful and blood soaked truth. Peace had to be made because Martin McGuinness, people like him and his colleagues in the ‘armed struggle’ ensured that there was a conflict from which peace had to be made. He helped brutalise the society he went on to supposedly save from people just like himself.

The people left out of the popular narrative today are the victims and their families. I can’t comprehend what they must be going through now.  My thoughts are of and with the victims and their families. Not the victim creators.