Vigils are being held across Ireland tonight to mark the passing of Martin McGuinness. He died last night in Derry. Much of the coverage so far discussing Martin’s life has started with his involvement in the IRA, but the story begins long before he held a gun. The story begins with a state that didn’t want him.
He was born in a state in which Catholics were subjected to discrimination in housing, employment and education.
Protestants were given houses before Catholics. In 1968, 14 new council houses were allocated to Protestants in Caledon. Emily Beattie, a 19-year-old single woman was among those given a house ahead of Catholic families with children. She was the secretary of a local Unionist politician and her brother was in the RUC.
He was born in a state that was gerrymandered.
Unionists maximised their representation in local government by drawing the constituency lines in such a way that large Catholic majorities would be placed in one electoral ward. Areas with unionist majorities were divided up carefully, ensuring there were more wards but still with unionist majorities.
He was born into a state in which the Ulster Unionist Party was the ruling party for 50 years, and in which each person did not have an equal vote. The franchise was restricted to property owners and primary tenants (and their spouses).
He was born into a ‘Protestant state for a Protestant people’.
In 1934, Prime Minister for the North of Ireland said the following: “They still boast of Southern Ireland being a Catholic State. All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State. It would be rather interesting for historians of the future to compare a Catholic State launched in the South with a Protestant State launched in the North and to see which gets on the better and prospers the more.”
He was born into a state comprised of an artificial majority, created by cherry-picking six of Ulster’s nine counties. “If you carve up a country,” Gerry Adams once said, “you can make anyone a majority.”
He was born into a state that did not want to give the same rights to every citizen.
In the 1960s, the civil rights movement campaigned for equal rights for nationalists in the North. In January 1972, fourteen innocent civilians were shot dead by the British Army after a civil rights march in the city which was protesting the introduction of internment.
It reminds me of an analogy I heard recently. If you poke a man in the arm once, it’s not a problem for him. But if you continue to do it for minutes or hours, ignoring his requests for you to stop, eventually that man is going to snap. Ulster’s ‘snap moment’ came in 1969.
When we are talking about Martin McGuinness, let’s not begin his story with ‘he was the leader of the IRA in Derry’. At least briefly, we should acknowledge the reasons why he joined the IRA in Derry, or why there even was an IRA to begin with.
Martin McGuinness was an IRA volunteer, a negotiator, a politician, a father, a husband, a son, a brother, a grandfather, and a friend to many. But most importantly for the people on this wee island of ours on the edge of Europe, he was a peacemaker. And that’s what we should focus on.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h‘anam