Martin McGuinness: 1950-2017

Irish revolutionary leader and working-class hero.

Proletarian writers

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Martin McGuinness, steadfast fighter for Irish freedom and reunification.

Proletarian writers

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The tens of thousands of people who turned out to line the streets of Derry on Thursday 23 March 2017 gave Martin McGuinness the nearest thing that the staunchly working-class and nationalist city of Derry, in the occupied six counties of northeast Ireland, has ever given in the way of a state funeral.

Although Comrade McGuinness was also laid to rest in the presence of the supposedly ‘great and good’ – leaders of the 26-county Irish republic, the British government’s secretary of state for northern Ireland, leading political representatives of the unionist community and even former US president Bill Clinton – the day belonged to those to whom he had dedicated his life and to those to whom he belonged – his family; his political family in Sinn Féin and the republican movement; and the working people of Derry and all parts of Ireland – risen people who Martin McGuinness embodied, led and served from his teenage years to his last breath, fighting the might of British imperialism to a standstill and then embracing new strategies and tactics in the long march of the Irish people to self-determination, national reunification and independence and the building of a new society.

Born on 23 May 1950, Martin McGuinness passed away on 21 March 2017, reportedly from amyloidosis, a rare and incurable disease that affects the body’s organs. His ill health was first revealed in December 2016, when he was forced to withdraw at short notice from a planned visit to China.

Speaking at the graveside, Martin’s lifelong friend and closest comrade – in introducing him it was correctly observed that for decades their names had been used interchangeably – Gerry Adams TD, president of Sinn Féin, said:

“This week, Ireland lost a hero. Derry lost a son. Sinn Féin lost a leader and I lost a dear friend and a comrade. But Martin’s family has suffered the biggest loss of all. They have lost a loving, caring, dedicated husband, father and grandfather. A brother and an uncle …

“Those of us who knew Martin are proud of his achievements. Of his humanity and compassion. Martin was a formidable person of the rarest kind – one who did extraordinary things in extraordinary times … Martin McGuinness was not a terrorist. Martin McGuinness was a freedom fighter. He was also a political prisoner, a negotiator, a peacemaker, a healer.”

Whilst welcoming the presence of the Cuban and Palestinian ambassadors, along with comrades from the Basque country and other international friends, Comrade Adams laid stress on McGuinness’s international commitment to peace and freedom:

“He was a friend to those engaged in the struggles for justice across the globe. And he travelled widely promoting the imperative of peace making, in the Basque country and Colombia, the middle east and Iraq. He travelled to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela and others in the ANC leadership … to learn from their experience.”

But Adams equally stressed that: “Martin was also a man who was, in many ways, very ordinary. Particularly in his habits and personal lifestyle.”

This Gerry Adams attributed to the poverty and oppression into which he was born and raised. He was one of seven children who grew up in a home with no inside toilet. Although he was a bright child, he failed his 11-plus to get into grammar school (years later when he became northern Ireland’s education minister, prior to becoming deputy first minister, one of his first acts was to abolish this iniquitous exam, which brands children as failures at the age of 10 and which had been retained in the north of Ireland long after it had been abolished in Britain) and left school at 15.

Having been turned down for various jobs on account of his religion, he became an apprentice butcher, prior to becoming a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army and a professional revolutionary.

Speaking of those times, and Martin’s subsequent development, Gerry Adams said:

“Like many other Derry ‘wans’, Martin grew up in a city in which catholics were victims of widespread political and economic discrimination. He was born into an Orange state, which did not want him or his kind.

“Poverty was endemic. I remember him telling me that he was surprised when his father, a quiet modest church-going man, marched in the civil rights campaign here in Derry.

“The Orange state’s violent suppression of that civil rights campaign, the Battle of the Bogside, and the emerging conflict propelled Martin into a life less ordinary …

“We first met, 45 years ago, behind the barricades of Free Derry. We have been friends and comrades ever since.

“From time spent on the run, to imprisonment in the Curragh and Portlaoise and Belfast prison, through his time as northern education minister and later deputy first minister, along with Ian Paisley, then Peter Robinson and then Arlene Foster, Martin made an unparalleled, astonishing journey.”

But Gerry Adams explained very clearly the nature and purpose of that journey, refuting much of the bourgeois commentary that would seek to convince people that the armed struggle had been a mistake or a crime, that at some point Comrade McGuinness had seen the ‘error of his ways’, had recanted and abandoned his political beliefs and goals – a narrative that is also promoted by the ultra-left and by small, ineffectual, counterproductive but noisy groups of so-called ‘dissident republicans’. Nothing could be further from the truth:

“Reading and watching some of the media reports of his life and death in recent days one could be forgiven for believing that Martin, at some undefined point in his life, had a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion; abandoned his republican principles, his former comrades in the IRA, and joined the political establishment.

“To suggest this is to miss the truth of his leadership and the essence of his humanity. There was not a bad Martin McGuinness or a good Martin McGuinness. There was simply a man, like every other decent man or woman, doing his best.

“Martin believed in freedom and equality. He resisted by armed actions those who withheld these rights, and then he helped shape conditions in which it was possible to advocate for these entitlements by unarmed strategies.

“Throughout it all Martin remained committed to the same ideals that led to his becoming a republican activist in the first instance – the pursuit of Irish unification, freedom, equality and respect for all.

“Martin believed that the British government’s involvement in Ireland, and the partition of our island, are at the root of our divisions. He was absolutely one hundred percent right about that.

“The British government has no right whatsoever to have any involvement in Ireland. [Here Comrade Adams refers to the words spoken by James Connolly, Ireland’s greatest socialist and working-class leader, at his court martial following the 1916 Easter Rising.]

“Along with others of like mind he understood the importance of building a popular democratic radical republican party across this island. He especially realised that negotiations and politics were another arena of struggle. In this way he helped chart a new course, a different strategy.

“This involved taking difficult initiatives to make political advances. Our political objectives, and our republican principles and ideals, did not change. On the contrary, these guided us through every twist and turn of the peace process.

“Thanks to Martin, we now live in a very different Ireland, which has been changed utterly. We live in a society in transition. The future now can be decided by us. It should never be decided for us.

“Without Martin there could not have been the type of peace process we’ve had. Much of the change we now take for granted could not have been achieved. In my view the key is in never giving up. That was Martin’s mantra also …

“Nevertheless, Irish republicans know that a long, long road, with many twists and turns, still lies ahead … If you want freedom, go out and take it. Organise. Mobilise. Unite for your rights. That is the challenge facing us. To build a mass movement for positive change across all 32 counties of our island. And for all our people. Facing that challenge we are the stronger because of Martin.

“So, don’t mourn. Celebrate and organise. That’s what Martin would want. He exemplified all that is decent and fair about our republican ideology and our core values of freedom, equality and solidarity.”

As many have noted, although Martin McGuinness rose to become northern Ireland’s deputy first minister and a world-renowned politician, whose work would take him, for example, to Windsor Castle (during the state visit of the Irish president), the White House and Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, he continued to live in the heart of Derry’s working-class community – just as for many years his wife Bernie continued to work behind the same shop counter – and it was there to which he rushed back as soon as he had completed whatever work had taken him away from home.

In the Irish Times of 22 March, Gerry Adams wrote: “He was a true man of the people, a personification of Derry – the city he loved with all his heart and the city that moulded the humility and warmth that defined him.” (Gerry Adams: The Martin McGuinness I knew)

It is worthy of note here that Derry’s role in the development of industry and of capitalism, and hence of its gravedigger, the proletariat, was of sufficient importance to earn this mention from Karl Marx in Capital:

“Besides the factory operatives, the manufacturing workmen and the handicraftsman, whom it concentrates in large masses at one spot, and directly commands, capital also sets in motion, by means of invisible threads, another army; that of the workers in the domestic industries, who dwell in the large towns and are also scattered over the face of the country. An example: the shirt factory of Messrs Tillie at Londonderry, which employs 1,000 operatives in the factory itself, and 9,000 people spread up and down the country and working in their own houses.

“The exploitation of cheap and immature labour-power is carried out in a more shameless manner in modern manufacture than in the factory proper. This is because the technical foundation of the factory system, namely, the substitution of machines for muscular power, and the light character of the labour, is almost entirely absent in manufacture, and at the same time women and over-young children are subjected, in a most unconscionable way, to the influence of poisonous or injurious substances.” (Capital Volume I, 1867, Chapter 15)

Something of this same spirit is captured in Phil Coulter’s famous Derry ballad, The Town I Loved So Well:

In my memory, I will always see
The town that I have loved so well
Where our school played ball by the gas yard wall
And they laughed through the smoke and the smell
Going home in the rain, running up the dark lane
Past the jail, and down behind the Fountain
Those were happy days in so many, many ways
In the town I loved so well

In the early morning the shirt factory horn
Called women from Creggan, the Moor, and the Bog
While the men on the dole played a mother’s role
Fed the children and then walked the dog
And when times got tough there was just about enough
And they saw it through without complaining
For deep inside was a burning pride
In the town I loved so well

This was the town that made and moulded Martin McGuinness – Irish patriot and working-class hero. And what is perhaps of greatest and most abiding significance in his life and work, not only for the Irish people, but just as much for the British working class and indeed the working and oppressed people of the whole world is this:

That the members of the working class, born and raised in poverty and oppression, can, if they are mobilised and organised, capture any fortress, defeat any enemy, no matter how powerful or ruthless, and can build a new society that serves their interests. That struggle still has a long way to go. Martin McGuinness has brought it closer to victory.

The earth shall rise on new foundations
We have been naught, we shall be all!

(– The Internationale)

Eternal glory to Comrade Martin McGuinness!
Freedom for Ireland!