When former IRA Chief of Staff Cathal Goulding died in 1998, his successor as leader of the Official IRA Seán Garland recited Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! at his cremation. It would not be an inappropriate epitaph for the latest deceased former IRA Chief of Staff, Martin McGuinness.
O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done:
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won:
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting.
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red.
Where on the deck my Captain lies.
Fallen cold and dead.
McGuinness and Goulding’s careers followed very different trajectories. McGuinness had initially been a member of the Official IRA in Derry but had joined the Provisionals, and quickly rose to be one of its key leaders, because of his dissatisfaction with the Officials’ lack of military aggression against the British army in Derry.
However, it might be argued that McGuinness and Goulding ended with the same conclusion: that the IRA was not militarily capable of defeating the British. Hence the torturous process that began in the early 1980s and concluded with the eventual disarmament and disbanding of the Provos.
McGuinness was key to that, and his persuasive abilities at Army Conventions and in meetings with Volunteers throughout the country was crucial in persuading almost everyone to go along with the new departure. Even if that meant him assuring people that the ceasefires were only a temporary ploy. Which he knew they were not.
I was in Portlaoise at the time of the first ceasefire in 1994. We had been kept vaguely apprised of what was going on through occasional communications from the Army Council. In reality we had no say in what happened, which was probably just as well as most prisoners were either hostile to or sceptical of any ceasefire. Many did not believe that there ever would be a ceasefire.
I supported it as it was apparent by the early 1990s that the armed struggle was going nowhere. Someone had to make a call, and McGuinness was one of the small group of people who did. He was right.
What has transpired since is rather more complex. The IRA was not defeated, but nor did it win. Now, it has apparently left the stage, its objective of a 32 County Republic unrealised.
Sinn Féin did well in the recent northern elections, and was ahead of Fine Gael in the most recent opinion poll. Were there to be a general election in the south, the most likely outcome on the current figures would be a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition. Despite indignant denials on both sides. Then again, who would have foreseen a Sinn Féin/DUP administration in Stormont?
Whether that continues remains to be seen. Only a few days remain in which a deal can be arrived at. If there is not, then there might be another election in which Sinn Féin might gamble on the opportunity of becoming the largest party. The more likely scenario, however, is that Stormont’s paymasters in Whitehall will suspend the whole thing and come back to it again perhaps after the next Westminster elections, which may be closer than expected.
Although departed, Martin McGuinness’ influence will continue to be a factor in what transpires over the coming months. He was clearly a much beloved figure among republicans, and in my small dealings with him he was invariably friendly and affable.
He was a complex man who belied his avuncular image. Some regard him as the ultimate Machiavellian who brought the IRA to a place it did not want to be. He was a major historical figure who changed the course of Irish history. Not too many people fall into that category.
Matt Treacy’s book A Tunnel to the Moon will be published in April.