To understand gun crime in America, the Guardian journalist Gary Younge picked a date at random from his calendar: November 23, 2013. He then investigated every one of the 10 people shot dead that day all over the US: who they were and why they died – from the cornfields of rural Michigan to the ganglands of Chicago, where the sound of gunfire is so common that the dogs are said to have stopped barking at it. The resulting book puts human faces on numbers that are so big they can seem meaningless.
That technique would work for the Troubles in Northern Ireland, during which 3,600 were killed and many more injured. Take November 28, 1972. Not randomly chosen, I admit, because it’s the day the IRA fired two rockets at my father, then a young Army officer in the Royal Artillery, and his men in a planned ambush. They were relatively new arrivals in Northern Ireland, and were attacked on Buncrana Road, where the north-west of Londonderry gives way to countryside near the border with the south. And they were lucky. One of the rockets hit an embankment and exploded, showering them with mud. The second sailed over them, landing harmlessly in a field.
But others weren’t so fortunate that day, when Soviet-made rockets were fired for the first time in the conflict. Further south, Constable Robert Keys, a policeman in the RUC, was killed when a rocket hit the police station at Belleek. He was 55 and married, with six children. On the other side, two young members of the IRA, John Brady and James Carr, aged 21 and 19, blew themselves up in the Bogside area of Londonderry, when a bomb went off by accident. (They were so badly injured that they could only be identified by a tattoo and a bank deposit book.) Finally, there was Paul Jackson, a regimental photographer in the Royal Artillery, also killed in Londonderry. He was hit by shrapnel from an IRA bomb planted in a supermarket on the Strand Road.
Future generations may struggle to understand all this: the vicious sectarianism that divided Northern Ireland, the daily violence, how precarious peace came in the late 1990s and held. I know they will, because I struggle to understand it already, just one generation later. I’m young enough only to remember the bloody tail end of the violence, the carnage of the Omagh bombing in particular, in the summer of 1998.
But the Troubles seem almost to belong to another world now. Martin McGuinness, who died on March 21, admitted that he was the second-in-command of the IRA in Londonderry in 1972. He might have had a hand in that ambush on Buncrana Road. Certainly he would have cursed the fact that the rockets missed. We know he played a role on Bloody Sunday earlier that year, charging around “probably armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun”, and possibly firing it, according to the Saville Inquiry.
Yet the other day, a former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, attended his funeral, delivering an impassioned eulogy that praised the former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland for giving peace a chance. McGuinness was lauded as “a great family man” by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, and praised for being a “formidable peacemaker” by Tony Blair. The Queen sent a private note of condolence to his widow.
The turnaround is miraculous. Peace in Northern Ireland is a remarkable fact. But whatever the realpolitik involved, I’m still not convinced that Martin McGuinness deserves the plaudits that so many are dishing out to him.
The problem, which can’t be escaped, is that the IRA’s violence, which at times he directed, was never justified. There were peaceful options from the start, as other nationalist politicians proved. And there has been far too little in the way of truth and reconciliation – admittedly on the Unionist side too – since the Troubles ended. Martin McGuinness never publicly atoned for his crimes, and never apologised. For strategic reasons, he simply decided to put them behind him.
Writing about the Second World War, the historian Michael Burleigh notes that the Germans located “their murderous depredations beyond law, but within a warped moral framework that defined their purifying violence as necessary and righteous”.
It would be hyperbolic to compare the IRA’s crimes to those of Hitler’s followers, plainly, but at an ideological level didn’t Martin McGuinness and his men make the same mistake? Wrongly, they saw their violence – the rockets, the bombs and bullets – as necessary and righteous. They located it beyond law, but within a warped moral framework that justified it.
Peace has come, and most are grateful for it, but the price paid was so high that it crossed into injustice and immorality. It sent a message to the former members of the IRA, those men who fired the rockets: “OK, you had a point after all.” That isn’t true and it never was.
Will Heaven is the managing editor of the Spectator