The Mendacity of Martin McGuinness

Tonight the Pensive Quill carries an article that was originally published on John Smart's website.

The Mendacity of Martin McGuinness

The Irish presidency as an issue of international concern has no standing when compared to its US presidential namesake. It lacks political clout and comes sans razzmatazz.  But then we are not comparing like with like. In the US the White House is the seat of power. In Ireland the presidency is largely a ceremonial affair. Presiding over Ireland from ‘The Aras’ means holding the presidential tongue, avoiding controversy, and observing the niceties of diplomatic protocol to the letter. Executive power is not displayed on the side of the tin, not even in small print. Yet…

…for all that the current Irish presidential election campaign has generated a public discourse that is every bit as sharp as we might expect from a US contest. And it may yet cause ripples that extend beyond the Irish shoreline. What started out as a slow dance of the dullards has suddenly become a quick step energised by a booster in the hip called Martin McGuinness, a senior figure in Sinn Fein, the party that was the Siamese twin of the IRA throughout its years of armed struggle.

For the past few years McGuinness, courtesy of the Sinn Fein garnered vote, has been the Deputy First Minister in the Northern Irish Executive, a body set up by the British state to which it has devolved some powers which allows the 6 counties of Ireland still under British administration to be ruled from London via an agency in Belfast. By most accounts he had settled down well in the job winning the respect of many erstwhile critics.

Now McGuinness has ‘temporarily’ stood down from that position so that he can devote his time to campaigning in that part of the country not called Northern Ireland and not ruled by Britain. There alone, paradoxically, a section of the nation is permitted to vote and decide who shall be the President of all-Ireland.

Mundane stuff to the uninitiated, but what makes the intervention of McGuinness interesting is his IRA history. What makes it electrifying is his denial of his IRA history. Not that he has lied outright about IRA membership, as his party leader Gerry Adams has done for thirty years, but rather that in his public pronouncements he seeks to limit his membership of the organisation to 1974 at the latest.

This jars with a widespread and deep rooted public perception. In the public mind McGuinness and the IRA have been synonymous. To extricate him from the IRA history is akin to imagining the history of the Catholic Church without the pope playing any part. To get some sense of the mendacity of Martin McGuinness in his claim to have left the IRA in 1974 it would be worth considering a hypothetical but similar claim by Joseph Goebbels to have left the Nazi Party in 1933. It flies in the face of comprehensive public knowledge. There would appear to be no journalist or academic who has studied the Northern Irish conflict who would risk their reputation by endorsing the assertion that McGuinness discontinued his IRA membership in 1974. There is a virtually unchallenged academic and journalistic consensus that he served as chief of staff of the IRA, its foremost leader. His years of incumbency have been recorded as 1978 to 1982.  There is also a widespread assumption, neither journalistically nor academically undermined, that he served on the IRA’s governing army council until 2005. Sprinkled liberally throughout media coverage of his IRA role there is open discussion of his alleged responsibility for killing on a mass scale.

McGuinness has responded to this with something approximating the snarl of a cornered beast, lashing out at his accusers with ill concealed hatred, all the time seeming to ignore that there is nothing like denial of the obvious for spurring interest. The more that Martin McGuinness insists that the law of gravity has determined that apples fall up rather than down when uncoupled from their tree, the greater the likelihood that the claim will be probed. Accused in Tuesday’s Irish Times, the country’s ‘paper of record’, of war crimes, he was forced to endure the following blistering critique:

"The question, to put it starkly, is whether we should have a head of State who would, in principle, be liable to arrest for war crimes under international law … The IRA’s “armed struggle” was what the fourth Geneva Convention defines as an “armed conflict not of an international character”. Under the convention, the parties to such a conflict are bound to respect certain standards in their treatment of “persons taking no active part in the hostilities”, including former or non-active members of opposing forces. Such people must not be subjected to violence, “in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; taking of hostages; outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment; the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognised as indispensable by civilized peoples”. It should go without saying that the IRA, partly under the leadership of Martin McGuinness, consistently breached every one of these provisions."

One does not have to subscribe to this view of McGuinness to understand the problems ahead that it flags up. If he does becomes President of Ireland the international media is likely to have a Kurt Waldheim type figure to focus on. Waldheim, the onetime Austrian president, when accused of war crimes responded, a la McGuinness, by accusing his detractors of engaging in ‘pure lies and malicious acts.’ The Austrian government appointed an international committee of historians to investigate the claims. It cited evidence showing he must have been aware of war crimes.

Can Ireland afford to have its president tracked around the globe by this type of interest, accompanied by demands that he should be detained in The Hague rather than installed in The Aras?

First published by John Smart.


  1. Bit OTT. I'd like to see Peter Robinson stand and watch Fintan O'Toole and the D4 mob throw rose petals at his feet.

    McGuinness is in zero danger of being arrested or hindered. He's the blue eyed boy of the establishment; or at least he was until he decided to have a sniff in their little trough.

  2. Starkly what is this nonsence??? How can he be liable to arrest, under international law, for war crimes if he's a terrorist. Nobody tracked other terrorists like Nelson, or demanded that he face The Hague.

    Actually how can and why should McGuinness tell the truth about his involvement. Seems to me there's already enough people only too eager with their exploits, clubs full of them.

    If the Irish people for once, believe that secrets regarding an IRA past are downright despicable and wholly unacceptable, then he'll be humiliated on the day, simple as that. The only shame is that McGuinness isn't still involved, not his involvement.

  3. The real issue is not his IRA past, but his denial of it. Does anyone want to elect someone whom they know to be a liar. Fine Gael and the others will drive home this point as soon as the real debates starts.

  4. Ruairi Joseph,

    The point made by O’Toole for example is that he is in principle liable to arrest on the grounds that the IRA’s armed struggle fell into a certain category under the Geneva Convention. In international law there are provisions that assign culpability on the grounds of command and control rather than direct involvement or even intent. It is noteworthy however that the conflict is now being described as a war by people who did not previously describe it as such (see Mail on Sunday). That seems to be an attempt to better fit the war criminal label.

    At the time of Mandela assuming the presidency he had a much greater degree of goodwill within the international community than McGuinness has. And of course the ANC struggle will always be played more kindly than the IRA’s because of the mass support it had and the fact that the South African regime was treated as a pariah by many states. I don’t recall Mandela facing the type of grilling McGuinness has. Would it last into his presidency assuming he won? I imagine it would. And that is where the Hague element could well feature in discourse.

    But even if we set aside the international dimension and stick closer to home, because of the deal SF signed up the party failed to safeguard republicans from PSNI action for activities prior to the GFA. Which means in principle McGuinness is open to prosecution if the state dig up something. I think it unlikely but the brouhaha that would be swirling around a president would not be good.

    As for McGuinness telling the truth about his involvement, he would be unwise to. But he could simply state ‘no comment’. That would not only cut the ridicule off at the pass (the type that Adams gets when he denies IRA membership) it would also ensure that their better public performers like Pearse Doherty are not hamstrung by saying they have to believe patent nonsense at a time when he is building up a reputation as a trustworthy operator.
    ‘The only shame is that McGuinness isn't still involved, not his involvement.’
    What would that have changed? Now, for the sake of exploration, if he or somebody else was involved in activities that are widely regarded as war crimes is that a cause of shame or does his only shameful act lie in bringing the war to a conclusion?
    Of wider consideration in this discussion is the question of whether non state actors or liberation groups can commit war crimes or crimes against humanity or is it only states? Should water boarding for example be a war crime if carried out by a state but not if carried out by an armed body opposed to that state? And that leads onto a broader range of questions about rights.

  5. JMST,

    'The real issue is not his IRA past, but his denial of it.'

    To a point. I noticed that John Waters touched on this very strongly at the weekend.

    The qualification would be it seems one of what that past involved. If for example he was suddenly to come out and say he ordered Enniskillen or Whitecross I think that particular past would become the issue. If he came out and said he ordered Narrow Water, it most likely would not be an issue. Aprt from the fact that he would be jailed!

  6. This has me bemused.

    I know a few people who were/are in the IRA. The reason I know is that they were convicted of IRA membership. They tend not to talk about it except for what is already in the public domain and I tend not to ask.

    My undersatanding is that as a secret, illegal orgainsation, the IRA tells it's members to keep their membership secret and if interrogated about it, deny it. Surely IRA members would be liable to internal sanction, prosecution and to possibly to compromise their comrades if they admitted membership.

    Everyone knows McGuinness was in the IRA. I don't expect him to be honest about it.

    Comparisons with Dick Cheany are ridiculous as are comparisons with Nelson Mandela.

    The debate should really be about policys going forward.


  7. The Irish president gets paid almost as much as Obama ! MC G risks being sued if he admits to being a provo.Best to let sleeping dogs lie. Gusty Spence R I P .

  8. no sympathy for the lying bastard hope he gets hounded to hell and back

  9. AM

    If McGuinness can be arrested for war crimes then they would need a bloody bigger 'The Hague', that's if they decided to start convicting elected Westerners, they simply do not convict their own.

    If the IRA had of won the war with a big dirty war crime like that carried out by the likes of the US, GB or Israel, then there'd be no issue. Actually hard to think of a war where war crimes didn't occur.

    Also seems like Martin is fit for the hang man, on what war crime specifically is it that we have collectively condemned him of.


    Surely Mandela as a convicted terrorist is aptly suited as a comparison to Marty... a convicted terrorist, I mean consider the IRA-ANC sleep over for one.

  10. Actually on further consideration, won’t McGuinness be dwarfed by the bigger bastards (thinking Presidents PMs and Queens) whom he will be tasked with welcoming to our shores? Let’s keep it in context, this is only the presidency of Ireland, it would be more of a concern if it was a head teacher’s position that we required filling.

  11. Ruairi Joseph,
    ‘If McGuinness can be arrested for war crimes then they would need a bloody bigger 'The Hague'.’

    Not the issue. Doubt if anybody here would disagree. The focus is on whether a lot of bother will track him if he becomes president. I think it likely. They will not take him to The Hague nor will they charge him with war crimes. I think the initial article which kicked this media debate off was one in which it was said in principle he is liable to be charged with war crimes. Were I writing it I would have said in principle he is open to the charge rather than that he is liable to be charged. Why in principle?

    Because of a command and control responsibility. It does not mean he ordered anything or even agreed, but a failure to act to prevent or words to that effect.
    There is probably not a war where war crimes did not take place.

    Should the war criminals then go free? What use a term like war crime? Is it right that Kissinger walk the streets? And if Kissinger is a war criminal then what of others who opposed Kissinger but who behaved in some cases like him? The Monteneros of Argentina hardly emerged squeaky clean.

    The argument here is not whether McGuinness is fit for the hangman. Nobody on this site is calling for that. And he has been condemned of no war crime. I think the wider brush is being used and it is to address issues of morality in war. Is there any such thing? Does anything go? Is there any use in employing the term war crime?

  12. Ruairi Joseph,

    he should be but he won't be dwarfed by them. Just as he is not being dwarfed by them now. One not unrelated issue is that he struck an agreement on policing which allows the British police to investigate IRA activity as crime.

  13. Anthony,

    There are two difference with Mandela. Firstly, Mandela served a very long sentance in difficult circumstances. He was obviously out of the loop for most of the ANCs campaign, if he was responisble in any way for atrocities, no one could say he hadn't served his time.

    Secondly, Mandela, was elected president after the ANC had won their struggle hands down. Victors don't tend to be charged with war crimes anywhere.

    Republicans in the North are still being jailed over things that happened before the peace process if they fail to toe the British Government line.

    I think McGuinness'candidacy might lead to some very uselful debate and soul serching in Ireland, especially as he would be president in 2016. By then Sinn Fein have said Ireland will be united, however the issue of IRA membership itself is a dead end.

    The media that embraced the peace process and see no problem with McGuinness being deputy first minister in the North are applying double standards if they have a problem with him holding office down here based on what he did before that peace process. People aren't stupid and can see that, I commented in another article on this blog that this issue will not stop people with republican sympathys from voting for him. It will sway very few people and could easily backfire.

    I would like to see what Sinn Fein have done since the GFA being probed.

    I don't subcribe to the idea that the president should be a bland figurehead, or some retired politican already on a massive pension. The last campaign that engaged me was that of Mary Robinson in 1990. She challenged people and caused real debate. McGuinness is the only candidate in this campaign who is likely do do that.


  14. Rory,

    There are similarities and dissimilarities between McGuinness and Mandela. More capital could have been spun out of it by SF had McGuinness allowed somebody other than himself to be drawing the comparisons. That was a gaffe reinforced by his claim to be the best peacemaker of all time, anywhere. I think there was a sense of a rampant ego which allowed ridicule to be drawn down by the bucketful.

    Mandela being out of the loop for so long would free him up from command and control responsibility. Although I wonder what it might have been like had he avoided jail.

    ‘Victors don't tend to be charged with war crimes anywhere.’

    But that does not make it any more right. If anything it makes it more wrong: might is right and the authority of the victor to try the vanquished undermined. How Bomber Harris escaped war crime prosecutions after WW2 underscores your point.

    ‘I think McGuinness' candidacy might lead to some very useful debate and soul searching in Ireland, especially as he would be president in 2016.’

    I think it would be divisive. SF is interested in nothing but power. All that waffle about standing with the citizens against the government – he never did it up North. That rhetoric is a ploy for the vote.

    ‘The media that embraced the peace process and see no problem with McGuinness being deputy first minister in the North are applying double standards if they have a problem with him holding office down here based on what he did before that peace process.’

    There are a lot of things down here do not want from up North – a government without opposition being one of them. The North is treated as a case of special pleading not a template for the norm.

    ‘I would like to see what Sinn Fein have done since the GFA being probed.’

  15. Its a long time since I read as much nonsense in one sitting,this war crime agenda is in Fintans large head it wont get anywhere and to think otherwise is ridiculous

  16. Saddened,

    it is a wider issue of discussion than Fintan O'Toole. There is now a war crimes discourse developing, justfifed or not. Significantly, it is not restricted to McGuinness. It is now being used to describe British state activities. Nothing will come of it in terms of trials and convictions at a war crimes tribunal/court.

    But perhaps of longer lasting significance it might give rise to a wider discussion about the relationship between morality and war.

  17. In short; Marty and Gerry are either liars....

    Or they are a spineless twosome who were willing to encourage a generation of Republicans to do what they weren't willing to do themselves.

  18. Id love to see wee Marty elected. Dammit he was crying when Geroid endorsed him on behalf of the Irish republican party.
    I like Marty, my family like Marty some 120 000 of us in the wee North like Marty. And the Free State establishment hate him. So there you are. Marty in the Park a nightmare for D4 and there is no one else who strikes the same fear. At this juncture i am reminded of 1981 and I too shed a tear like Marty. Vote Marty , Rock the Free State.

  19. AM

    It's the hypocrisy in all of this war crime shite that is my point. Of course war criminals should not be allowed to go free, but more times than not, they do. FACT. A slap on the back for a job well done, and if they have really excelled in the art of bringing hell to their fellow beings, they're honoured in granite or bronze.

    Morality in war? War crimes?

    Has always stuck with me what one old man said before his death, a survivor from the Somme, the old solider looking back said...

    'war is organised murder, nothing more, nothing less'.

    Obviously in his eyes entire war is a crime, and if you agree, then the Geneva Convention amounts to a load of bullocks.

  20. John Mooney Sunday...

    'Does anyone want to elect someone whom they know to be a liar'

    Martin McGuinness is a politician, he lies, that's his job. The good people who will cast their vote, do not realise this or do not care.

  21. Rory

    'I think McGuinness'candidacy might lead to some very uselful debate and soul serching in Ireland, especially as he would be president in 2016'.

    I think that this is a fantastic point you have made, and is why I for one, would probably if I could, vote for this man McGuinness. Sets the cat amongst pigeons.

  22. Ruairi Joseph,

    I know what your point is. It annoys many of us. There is so much of double standards at play. But even in terms of hypocrisy the ‘just' are all too willing to join the 'unjust' and share their double standards. Bloody Sunday was a war crime. I am convinced of that. But if that was a war crime how could Whitecross not be? And it is pointless for us to point the finger at McGuinness, who as far as I know was very much opposed to that type of action, when some of us approved of it when it happened. For many republicans opposed to McGuinness there is no moral high ground to be seized here, merely moral reflection.

    I think this sort of question should trouble all republicans who feel they are authentic in their insistence that the British State violated the rights of Irish people and that such violation plays a part in their resort to arms.

    In yesterday's Irish Times somebody commenting on a Fintan O'Toole piece claimed that the IRA never committed a war crime. That seemed to me to be a wholly unsustainable position.

    'war is organised murder, nothing more, nothing less'.

    I have read that or something similar prior to this but it is a good point to raise. Yet if you accept that it leads to a pacifist position. I would love to see war forbidden but it is like asking for politics to experience a similar fate.

    The thing about this type of discussion is that it does not tie us down to a view on Martin McGuinness but allows for a wider appraisal of the issues at play in phenomena of this sort. I doubt if there are easy answers but there has to be hard questions if it is to be explored.

  23. was bomber Harris a hero? debating morals wasn't something that ever held the brits or yanks back. Their enemy doing it only gives them the edge.

  24. Larry,

    I thinmk there was a string case made by historians that Harris should have been charged with war crimes.

  25. So as I asked before about morals and war crimes,would the guy who scheduled the trains for Auschwitz and the other death camps be considered a war criminal? he certainly must have been a man of dubious morals.

  26. Marty,

    I guess it depends on the level of responsibility and involvement. Certainly Eichmann was one. After WW2 the SS was declared a criminal organisation but not all in it were war criminals.

  27. What section of the nazis was the pope in? Is Dana being pressed to explain that?

  28. Larry-

    The pope was in one of the most cut-throat gangs that ever fired a shot into a civilian- the hitler youth-
    most of his last year during world war 2 was spent shooting at brit and yank planes that were dropping bombs on his city- suppose the pope can feel a little affinity with those libyans who were shooting up at brit and yank planes recently-