Can we ever really ever know major public figures? Probably not. And in any case, like all humans, they are always complex and contradictory. But we can at least examine the concrete conditions from which such figures emerged and do so with some degree of objectivity. In the case of Martin McGuinness, we can say emphatically that he grew up in a country that had for centuries been socially, economically and militarily occupied by England, and that during his formative years, that occupation continued with great brutality in six counties of his country of birth. Even at the moment of his death, despite some reluctant attempt at power sharing by successive British governments, that occupation continues.

Let us be absolutely clear here; there is and never has been a country called Northern Ireland. There is only Ireland and the six counties in the north of that country are still under British colonial occupation. The occupation has today, due to decades of fierce resistance by the Irish people, become somewhat benign, but if we are to get anywhere near an understanding of what motivated Martin McGuinness, we must start and finish with this central objective historical fact - the ongoing colonial occupation of his homeland.

 

The narrative that will pour out of the British media will be that McGuinness started out as a terrorist and later, seeing the light, switched over to a law abiding, democratic politician. Nothing could be further from the truth. McGuinness was drawn to the military resistance against British occupation of the six counties of Ireland because there was no peaceful political alternative open to him. The nationalist community in cities like Derry and Belfast were being burned out of their houses by fascist squads of Loyalists and their civil and political rights were routinely denied by the occupying forces. The British State cannot bring themselves to publicly admit it, but large sections of the Loyalist community had succumbed to the ideology and practices of fascism. McGuinness and tens of thousands like him experienced this on a daily basis and decided upon the only course open to them – armed resistance.

Imagine for a moment that Germany under the Nazi regime had occupied Britain and that after years of resistance, the Germans had been forced out of Britain save for the continued occupation of Devon, Cornwall and the Channel Islands. And in these occupied territories the Germans propped up their continued occupation by the use of imported German settlers and a pro-German administration. The answer of course is self-evident. The British people would somehow get themselves organised and resist just like the French resistance did in Nazi Occupied France and the Irish people have always done in the face of British occupation. It is entirely false to label Martin McGuinness as a terrorist. On the contrary, he was a committed freedom fighter battling against the terrorist practices of the British state and its ‘local’ supporters. As the events at Bloody Sunday graphically testify, it was the operatives of the British State that were the terrorists and not the legitimate resistance fighters from the republican movement.

Tragically but not unexpectedly, the majority of British citizens have been totally duped on this matter. But does any of this matter today? Most definitely. As Brexit unfolds over the coming years the question of English national identity is going to come to the fore in a way it has not done so for centuries. What will that identity look like?  Well the omens are not good. If things go anything like the direction of thinking in the USA, we can expect a slide into xenophobic nationalism tinged with a racist and neo-fascist ideology. The Daily Mail will be in its element returning to its pro-fascist sympathies of the past. The recent trend of British people thinking as outward-looking global citizens in an ever more interconnected world could be in danger of sliding back into a narrow colonial mentality. The vote for Brexit in many ways typifies that mentality.

‘Let’s make Britain great again’. It’s a nonsense but a dangerous one. No country can aspire to ‘greatness’ on its own. Those days of ‘splendid empire’ are long gone – and thankfully so. ‘Greatness’ such as it is, can only be achieved by a collective, interconnected effort of all nations and all creeds. 

But here is the strange thing; the English people will never fully achieve that easy going cosmopolitan outwardness until they make a reckoning with their own imperial past be it in Africa, Asia, Australasia or closer to home in Ireland. The past of course cannot be remade. Indigenous genocide happened. Slavery happened. Colonial occupation happened. But in recognising the dark chapters of our collective British history we just might be able to aspire to better things. That process of recognition can start in many places and in many ways, but for the people who call themselves English, the ongoing occupation of the six counties of Ireland is as good a starting place as any. As Karl Marx once prophetically mused in respect to Ireland; the English will never be free whilst the Ireland is in chains.

I met Mr McGuinness once. Briefly. I was part of a trade union delegation made up of health workers from the NHS. We had travelled to Derry for the annual Troops Out March. Mr McGuinness took the time to listen attentively to my explanation as to why we had been motivated to support the march and its underlying causes. He seemed genuinely interested. First impressions can of course be misleading but in that short interchange of ideas I found the man to be, above all, cultured and thoughtful. There was no evidence of hubris or blind, angry rhetoric.

It was on that trip that I got my first glimpse of the true nature of the British occupation. We had been billeted in ‘republican’ homes and what baffled us all was the near total absence of menfolk. When I rather naively sought an explanation, I was bluntly informed that they were either on active service, on the run, in prison or dead. That was sobering in a bleak sort of way but what was more sobering was the manner in which the women folk were forced to assume most of the leading roles in both home and community. This was a form of women’s liberation I had not been expecting. To have an entire community somewhat devoid of men and run principally by women and children was both unnerving and inspiring in equal measure.

Something else caught my eye – the complete absence of bushes and hedges in the republican areas. I was soon to learn that all hedgerows had been systematically removed by the British army in an endeavour to make evasion from the army patrols that much more difficult. So too had metal dustbins been removed because they were deemed an offensive weapon against the tanks and guns of the British army.

In the evenings, we were invited to the republican socials and once again I made aware of the suffering of the Irish republican community. The pain and anxiety were etched in their faces, and as the evening progressed and the beer flowed so too did the personal tales of British brutality. They seem all too grateful for a sympathetic ‘English’ ear to which they could pour out their stories of arbitrary internment and routine gratuitous humiliations.  Make no mistake about it; the British occupying forces used torture on a regular and systematic basis. And I should add, collusion with the Loyalist death squads was also a daily feature of the occupation. It was like something straight out of a South American fascist dictatorship.

The majority of English people, including many well- intentioned ones, had absolutely no knowledge of the fascist brutality that was being carried out in their name. And furthermore, they seemed to have no interest in finding out.  When a British squaddie stuck his loaded assault rifle in my face when I dared to pass through an army checkpoint, I began to get a greater sense of what the republican community had to content with on a daily basis. It was a military occupation, plain and simple.

Could it be that I was being conned by those republican voices as to the real nature of the war in Ireland? I don’t think so. Back in London I had the privilege of working alongside a former squaddie who, so horrified by the fascist practices he had been instructed to carry out in Ireland, decided to join the Troops Out movement and to testify as to what was really going on. He was brave and inspirational. He told everyone that would listen that every time he smashed open a front door he was confronted by a humble family scene that could so easily have been his own. He said that when he saw the terrified look on the mothers faces he thought of his own mother and realised then that he was fighting on the wrong side.

Equally, when I saw first-hand the wonderful internationalist murals in Derry – many with stirring portraits of Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara and other revolutionary fighters, I too knew beyond doubt which side was the progressive side. 

The records show that Martin McGuinness lived his entire adult life as a fighter for freedom and democracy and did so with great consistency. His chosen tactics changed but his ideology of freedom never did. The British state via its corporate media will try and tell us otherwise but in this uncertain era of Brexit, we would be wise not to again fall for their colonial propaganda.

End JPK Copyright 21/3/17

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