Martin McGuinness and the Not so Uncommon Transition from Terrorist to Statesman

Image courtesy of Northern Ireland Office

With the death of Martin McGuinness, the former Provisional IRA senior commander  turned peace-maker and Deputy First Minister, one is struck that such a transition was simultaneously, impressive and outrageous. I had the opportunity of meeting McGuinness last January when I interviewed him. I was struck by his warmth and generosity in taking time out of his schedule to help a student write his undergraduate dissertation. Colin Parry, whose 12 year-old son was killed by the IRA in 1993, spoke of how Martin McGuinness ‘was an easy man to talk to’. Parry then pointed out that “history is littered with former terrorists who become statesmen” such as Nelson Mandela and those who have made up the Israeli government. This raises the question of how such transitions from violence to political leadership occur?

The first point is that: Terrorists are in many regards politicians from day one. In wresting with the question “Is One Man’s Terrorist Another Man’s Freedom Fighter?” Boaz Ganor  observes that, “Terrorism is the deliberate use of violence aimed against civilians to achieve political ends.”[1] To paraphrase Clausewitz, it can be said that, terrorism “is the purist of the policy of a party, inside a country, by [violent] means”[2], indeed terrorists are inherently politically motivated. Their use of violence is often to change the status quo, to impact how politics takes place and to gain public recognition for their cause.

Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman’s book “Anonymous Soldiers” considers how the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, led by Yitzhak Shamir, succeeded in achieving an independent state in 1948. He notes: “terrorism, can in the right conditions and with the appropriate strategy and tactics, succeed in attaining at least some of its practitioners’ fundamental aims.”[3] Nelson Mandela’s struggle was to change the repressive race class and privilege system in South Africa. Leading scholar Richard English identifies that, McGuinness’s use of violence was a response to the “structural biases in Northern Ireland during the 1921-72 period towards unionists and against nationalists which made the unionist hold on public life almost absolute.”[4] This is not to condone the use of violence; it is simply to highlight that terrorists are often far more rational than we often first assume. If (and when) the opportunity arises for public office, this rationality manifests itself in the idea that one can be more useful in bringing about lasting legislative and administrative change inside the system rather than outside. Although McGuinness never succeeded in creating a united Ireland during his lifetime, his influence inside the Northern Irish Assembly brought greater cross community change and representation across the sectarian divide.

Secondly, a dose of realism is useful: Reality sets in. As terrorist campaigns progress and indigenous calls for peace are made, transitions away from violence can ensue. It has often been said that the 1987 Enniskillen bombing was the moment when IRA leaders such as McGuinness realised that the campaign had gone too far and marked the beginning of his transition towards peace. Michael Smith adds that by 1989, senior Sinn Féin members began ‘criticising the PIRA over civilian deaths’. [5]  On the British side, Historian John Newsinger adds that, “British counter-terrorism approaches had grown stronger since their calibration after their mistakes in fuelling the bloody period between 1971-1974”.[6] These elements combined with the political and civilian fatigue at the costs of the Troubles, provided fertile ground and opportunities for the conversation (known as ‘the link’) between the PIRA and the British government to be explored. Other similar examples exist. Gustavo Petro, the former Mayor of Bogotá was also able to negotiate amnesty with the Columbian government, despite his involvement with the brutal M-19 group, demonstrating that the drive for peace often negates turbulent pasts. Government’s that are willing to negotiate and local popular support allow those who once bore arms to become democratically elected.

Thirdly, life as a terrorist is a hard and stressful one. Fear of imprisonment and being on the run is hard to sustain for long periods of time. If opportunities for negotiation present themselves in favourable ways, a seat in public office can be an attractive option. It is often the case that when terrorists are brought to the negotiating table, people are reminded that they are normal people, who have similar interests and desires, who can also laugh and cry.

Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell’s meeting with republican leaders in 1997 paved the way for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the monumental power sharing between the two former antagonists Ian Paisley and McGuinness in 2007, who became known as the “chuckle brothers” due to the friendship that developed between them. A similar transition can be seen in then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 proclamation against Nelson Mandela’s party:

“The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation…Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.”

Regardless, as the Independent recorded in 1990, “the spectacle of her almost falling over herself to meet Mandela in 1990 showed very clearly there is no such thing as an absolute in politics”.[7] As such, people can change and we must acknowledge that people’s firmly held beliefs can evolve over time. The transition from a stressful life in the shadows into a more stable life in public view and a career in public office has been a path many former terrorist leaders have followed.

Such a transition from terrorism to mainstream politics, from war to peace, comes at a cost. Peter McLoughlin has noted that

“the British government’s focus was on republican violence and how to end it, while Sinn Féin’s focus was on the historical injustices that motivated such violence in the first place.”

When peace is pursued, compromise must take place and difficult decisions have to be made. Personal inhibitions and bloodied pasts must be set aside to make room for the enemy to sit at the table.

Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly has noted that if absolute defeat for one side or the other is not possible “negotiations are a part of where you go.” Risks must be taken and uncomfortable lines crossed for both parties involved. Such symbols of peace were seen with McGuinness’s handshake with the Queen in 2012 – a big step for an Irish republican and for the Queen, whose cousin Lord Mountbatten had been killed by the IRA in 1979. Forgiveness and grace must be expressed and while differences inevitably endure a productive way forward incorporates working together with former enemies to build a peaceful and progressive future.

McGuinness’s deep conviction that the days of conflict and violence were over was clearly seen in his condemnation of the republican dissidents who had killed a police officer as “traitors to Ireland.” Although such declarations may never change the minds of many of the IRA’s victims, Ian Paisley Jnr’s words at McGuinness’s death show that some former enemies are prepared to move on: “It’s not how you start your life that’s important, it’s how you finish.”

Although the Troubles present unique circumstances, what we can see in the life of Martin McGuinness is a familiar story, a journey that many other terrorists turned statesmen across the world have also made. The transition from violence to peaceful politics is not an easy one, yet in many regards when there is a stalemate the conversion is less unusual than one might expect. Through the ballot box Martin McGuinness was able to represent the opinions of citizens whose voices had been ignored before the 1970s. Although his terrorist past must not be forgotten, his commitment to the shared future for Northern Ireland must be remembered and commemorated.

[1] Ganor, Boaz. “Defining terrorism: Is one man’s terrorist another man’s freedom fighter?.” Police Practice and Research 3, no. 4 (2002): 287-304.

[2] Galula, David. Counterinsurgency warfare: theory and practice. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006, p.3.

[3] Hoffman, Bruce. Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947. Vintage, 2016, p. 483.

[4] English, Richard. Armed struggle: The history of the IRA. Oxford University Press, USA, 2005, p. 352.

[5] Smith, Michael Lawrence Rowan. Fighting for Ireland?: the military strategy of the Irish Republican movement. Routledge, 2002, p. xxii.

[6] Newsinger, John. British counterinsurgency. Springer, 2002, p. 166-167.

[7] ‘The men of war promise third violent decade’, Independent, 29 September 1990

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About Robert Sellar

Robert is currently finishing up his Masters in Terrorism and Political Violence at Georgetown University on exchange from the University of St Andrews, where he obtained his undergraduate in International Relations. He grew up in Dublin and moved to Belfast when he was a teenager, and so can be British or Irish on demand. He has spent time in Africa and is interested in international security, law and humanitarian issues that affect our world today.

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