To the memory of my mother, Martina Donnelly
The only unfortunate thing about Martin McGuinness’s death was that it came at a time when I was very busy with work and unable to respond sooner. I am not at all bothered about his slow and, apparently, very painful end because in 1998 the Sinn Féin militia, under his direct orders, attacked my family. Armed with guns, nail-studded baseball bats (yes, you have read that correctly – they used baseball bats that had nails hammered into them), iron bars and mace gas, they attacked us. They did so with a ferocity that cannot be imagined by those who have not witnessed such horror unless, perhaps, they have had it described to them in detail by someone who has experienced it. My three little sisters, aged 11, ten and six years old, were all hospitalised with trauma wounds, including punctures on their arms, legs, backs and heads caused by those nails, and they also suffered poisoning from the mace gas. My father’s leg and hand were broken and, along with his children’s injuries, his puncture wounds had to be treated for infections that were caused by the nails. My mother was also very badly wounded, and suffered the worst of us all: as a result of the injuries that she endured that night, she developed the ovarian cancer that would take her life some years later.
Violence is a singular and totalising phenomenon, and it is never more so than when it is inflicted in the name of power against children. The violence that was inflicted on my family at 10pm on the night of Sunday, June 28th, 1998 (just days after the formalisation of the Pacification of Ireland Process with the re-opening of Stormont) was the latest incarnation of British colonial violence, camouflaged by its local deliverers: British proxies from the Sinn Féin militia who were posing as Irish republicans. The British state attempted to disguise its presence in our home but immediately, in the hours, days and weeks that followed, and then during the years that have passed since, what was hatched on that night became so obviously apparent that it is now a matter of public (if unofficial) record, and is being spoken about openly. Even in the darkest times of state terror and government violence – for this was government violence, committed in the name of Stormont, Westminster and the Blairite imperialism that would later on murder over a million people in Iraq – the truth has a strange way of coming to the surface. It does not, of course, appear in the official discourses of the press and the establishment, but resides instead in the resistant consciousness of people who recognise colonial power and its agents, and who choose to speak out against it.
An Agent of Colonial Violence
Years before they established death squads in Iraq, New Labour acquired valuable practice in deploying them in Ireland with the help of their local puppets. In Derry and elsewhere, Martin McGuinness was a key agent of this power and, as its principal native avatar, he was the one to whom the British could always turn whenever spectacularly violent forms of pacification were needed. He was the one who could activate the required force in all of its barbarity, and they were the ones who believed that they could use him to silence dissent and erase, with the application of this terror, the possibility of a United Ireland (I am referring here to the real possibility of Irish unification and not the empty simulation of it promoted by Sinn Féin, then and now).
Murder and brutalisation were sanctioned with the official and unofficial blessing of the state from its local to its highest levels, and what we have seen with the death of Martin McGuinness is the closure of a very significant node within its grid of power. To be sure, its light had been faltering for some time, and its value was rapidly diminishing before he was ever diagnosed with the amyloidosis that killed him. For some time he could not walk the streets in Derry without being jeered at for being a traitor, and it was with the greatest irony but without, of course, any grasp of the concept, that he pressed charges against a young man who threw eggs at him in the Bogside. That power, which circulates across all of its circuits, dominating them until they are burned out and extinguished, now no longer illuminates one of the most important contacts in the history of British intelligence and counterinsurgency.
The Question of Power
From the then-Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam (who, while expressing her “love” for McGuinness, insisted that such attacks were not ceasefire violations but the good and necessary work of “internal housekeeping”) to the judge who, reluctantly convicting Hugh Sheerin, one of the attackers who broke into our home and lauded him as a family man, to the police who arrived on the scene, minutes after my father had been stopped and questioned about his movements by them, under threat of immediate arrest under the Special Powers Act if he did not reveal where he was going and when (“to home”, he replied, “are you sure? Are you sure about that?” they kept demanding), this shared power percolated through the entire system, along with their shared violence. That night, my father remarked to me about the strangeness of the police’s questions because, despite a lifetime of harassment at their hands, he had never experienced them being so determined to establish beyond any doubt the fact that he was going home, and precisely how soon, as they did just then when they stopped him while driving on a journey from a shop that took less than two minutes. Just as he told me this, the gang burst through our front door, and this happened within less than another two minutes of his arrival: exactly as long as it took him to tell me about his strange questioning at the hands of the RUC.
When the police appeared, again only minutes after the Sinn Féin gang had left, their only expression of surprise at what had happened was over the fact that we had fought back and that so many of the attackers were themselves injured. We also witnessed the reality of official consternation at a plan gone wrong when they discovered that their proxies had left behind, along with a lot of their own blood (which, of course, was never converted into DNA evidence), a mace gas spray canister that my mother had knocked out of one of their hands. “Who else saw this? Who else knows about this?” they kept shouting. Of course, they made sure that nobody else would ever know about it or see any reference to in the official narrative of what happened that night: this piece of evidence was quickly disappeared for good when, in their words, “it was just lost in the Strand Road” – i.e., hidden by them in their local barracks.
In the Service of Colonial Power
This week, apologists for Martin McGuinness have been trying to explain what did on behalf of the British state as the result of a very dense political process, the very meaning of which is so complicated that it lies beyond the comprehension of ordinary people (they used to call it “the bigger picture” but now it’s just referred to as “the complexity of the process”). They are also claiming that their party is not wilfully serving the furtherance of British policy in Ireland, while telling their supporters that they must keep facilitating the mysterious, ever-shifting dynamic and rituals of a system and structure that is beyond their understanding. The mystery, they insist, requires complete submission to the rules of power, forever demanding further demonstrations of their prostration in increasingly humiliating displays of obedience. For the thoroughly unthinking, these proposals aren’t difficult to absorb – they’re just what you do when you’re told to, because “that’s politics”, and “the way things work”. Orwellian doublethink of this kind has always had a profound hold over the weak-minded, and as Orwell warned, state terror is where official thought control always begins.
The final defilement, committed during a life that spiralled ever-downward into an abyss of degrading servility, was the moment at which McGuinness, with his trademark leer, posed for photographs with Elizabeth Windsor and clapped while physically stooping his body as a portrait of the English queen, for which he raised the funding, was unveiled in London. As images of this incident were circulated around the world, politically conscious people were asking, “What have the British got on him?” It was, without doubt, the most revealing public incident during his parallel careers, both official and unofficial, in the service of British authority, and it will forever be his epitaph. It reveals an individual who, entirely bound by his own practice of betrayal, desperately served the commands of his handlers. Having become so immersed in the game of power, he really had no choice but to crawl along its corridors in Westminster and Chelsea, where he found his true home as a flatterer of the establishment. There was no greater humiliation in the history of constitutional Irish nationalism and there certainly is not a lower depth to be plumbed than this.
All of this predates Orwell, and the doublethink that he identified has its origins in the colonisation of Ireland where, throughout history, we find that true subjugation begins and ends within the minds of the conquered. In 1914, James Connolly defined this as the practice of “ruling by fooling” and in Ireland colonial political control has been exercised through this means for centuries. It was established through the system of “surrender and re-grant” during the sixteenth century, when chieftains bent to the English crown, and modernised in the coercion measures that were imposed throughout the 1800s and officially entitled “Peace Acts”. Today, it is visible for those who choose to recognise it in the internment of Tony Taylor. His illegal incarceration is now labelled “detention”, just as it was in 1971, because this is a more palatable noun with which the British government can promote coercion and a much less frightening concept for the public to grasp, just as it also was for the Apartheid régime in South Africa.
Today, the rest of us have a choice. We can choose to submit to such lies and believe those who, in praising Martin McGuinness as Bill Clinton and Alastair Campbell did, continue his work of distorting the past, controlling the present and condemning the future. Or we can choose to challenge them and, in so doing, liberate ourselves.