The young Martin McGuinness was a typical Catholic boy who grew up in the six north-east counties of Ireland, in the Protestant-sectarian backyard of the British state, the "Protestant sub-state for a Protestant people".
The sub-state had a one-in-three Catholic minority. In McGuinness's Derry, two miles from the border with the 26 Counties, it was the other way round: there was a Catholic majority of two-to-one. In the Protestant state for a Protestant people, inconveniences like that could be dealt with by a little judicious gerrymandering of election boundaries. The Protestant one-third could have a two-thirds majority on the city council, and they did.
Young Martin McGuinness learned as he grew that, to the people who ran the world in which they lived, he and his were inferior beings: taigs, micks, Fenian bastards. Jobs were scarce in an economy which, even as the rest of the UK economy boomed, was run down and decrepit. And who got most of the jobs, and the best jobs? Those who weren't taigs, micks, and Fenian bastards.
Houses were scarce, and council houses brought local government votes. So who got the council houses? Not the taigs, micks, and Fenian bastards. A single Protestant woman could get a house ahead of big Catholic families living in slums.
When young Martin McGuinness, like other boys, played cowboys and Indians, he could look up at the great walls of the perfectly preserved 17th century Protestant fortress city, and imagine himself as an Amerindian playing among the teepees outside the walls of the cavalry fort.
In times of "emergency" - and there were a lot of those - he would feel alarm if he encountered rifle-carrying patrols of the mobilised sectarian bully-boys of the Special Constabulary - the "B-men", the B Special constables.
But there were good things too. The British welfare state operated in Northern Ireland, and the Catholics like everyone else had social security benefits for the unemployed, better health care, better schools, and far better chances of going to university, than people like them in the 26 Counties. Vastly better.
But second-class citizens they were. People kept down by the ever-present threat of force, and sometimes by the use of it.
His people began to grow confident, and organised to win equal rights - as they sloganised it: "one man, one vote; one man, one house; one man, one job". When Martin McGuinness was still in his teens, marches and agitation for civil rights gripped the Catholics of Derry. Fighting between the police and Derry's Catholic young people became a fact of everyday life.
On 13 August 1969, a provocative march by Orange sectarians on the walls of the old fortress city - an annual event - sparked clashes with resentful Catholic youths. The Orange police, in a pogrom mood, tried to invade the Catholic Bogside, the slum outside the city walls.
They had done that before. A few months earlier they had beaten an old man to death there. The people put up barricades to stop them, and fought them off for three days. Fighting spread to Belfast.
The British Labour government put the army on the streets to stop what was the beginning of a civil war, and quickly forced through every reform the civil rights movement had asked for.
For the Catholic youth roused up, McGuinness one of them, that was now anti-climactic. The Republican movement split at the end of 1969. The left wing were Stalinists. The right wing were avid for an anti-British military campaign like the one they had been forced to abandon, defeated, in 1962. They reorganised, recruited, and trained the anti-imperialist, anti-Crown youngsters.
The political consciousness of those young people had been shaped by nationalist songs, stories, histories, myths, martyred heroes. It was a living revolutionary nationalist culture, easy for the Republicans to annexe and build on.
In March 1971 the Provisional IRA started shooting British soldiers. It was the start of a war that would go on for 23 years. The still very young McGuinness emerged as a leader in the armed conflict.
Nothing better was on offer to him and many like him. Politics? The gun and the bomb. The enemy? The Crown forces and their Irish "collaborators".
McGuinness had talent and he had guts. What he didn't have was even the glimmer of a world outlook other than the physical force Republican one.
Within a year, by March 1972, the Republicans had won all they would win in the long war. The Protestant-sectarian home-rule government was abolished, and Britain insisted that from now on, any government must be a coalition in which Catholics and Protestants would share power.
The Protestants had before the First World War won a veto over a united Ireland; now the Republicans won for the Catholics a veto over a Protestant-only government in the Protestant state for a Protestant people.
That was institutionalised in the Sunningdale Agreement of November 1973. It stipulated compulsory power-sharing, in a more flexible version of the Good Friday Agreement accepted by the Provisionals a quarter of a century later, in 1998.
The Protestants rejected Sunningdale. A Protestant general strike destroyed the power-sharing government in May 1974. It was made very plain that the block on a united Ireland was a section of the Irish people, not Britain.
After a year's ceasefire in 1975-6, the Provisionals resumed war. With what objective? A united Ireland. How would their war achieve that? Could they hope to persuade the Protestants to agree to a united Ireland by shooting and bombing them?
No, but they could, they thought, compel Britain to become "persuaders" of the Protestants. Britain had not been able to "persuade" enough of the Protestants to agree even to share power with the Catholics within the Six Counties. In fact, by "persuade" the Provisionals meant "coerce", in every way open to the British government, including financial pressure.
These Republicans fought a war, in which a big bulk of the casualties were Northern Ireland Protestant-Unionists, to compel Britain to force the Northern Ireland Protestants into a united Ireland. Put plainly, it was a mad undertaking. Yet that is what they were trying to do.
McGuinness and his comrades slowly, all too slowly, realised that their war was unwinnable, and accepted defeat. They turned to politics. And Martin McGuinness, the young Derry Republican of 1971 and after, kissed the Queen's hand, became co-equal Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland government. The Queen sent condolences to his widow.
Thousands on both sides were killed and maimed in a war that after 1972-3 achieved nothing and could achieve nothing greater than to raise Sinn Fein, the militarists of yesteryear, the one-time devotees of physical force on principle, to its present eminence in bourgeois Irish politics.
They fought for a British solution - Britain to "persuade" the Protestant Unionists. They got a British solution, but not the one they wanted. And it was McGuinness and his comrades who were "persuaded".
The pattern of Irish politics, again and again - Cumann na nGaedheal, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Clann na Poblachta, the Workers' Party - is one of physical-force revolutionaries becoming bourgeois politicians as anything but revolutionaries.
The tragedy of McGuinness and others in his generation is that they repeated that pattern, that they could not break out of it. McGuinness's surviving comrades are still enmeshed in it..
Lament for David O’Connell
“Ireland without her people means nothing to me” — James Connolly
“They think they have pacified Ireland... They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland un-free shall never be at peace” — Patrick Pearse
Six hundred years of strife behind,
Of conflict, slaughter, sept and sect;
And Tone* said, we needs must grow blind
To creed and race, for self-respect.
But History spawns on rancid need
Malign sly ghosts who mesmerise
With hate and hope; who plead, mislead,
And, pleading, seed in subtle lies:
Two peoples yet, not citizens, peers,
Still Talbot’s children, William’s heirs*.
Saviours in-bred on poisoned soil,
Souls shaped to a Fenian shout,
Minds rough-hewn in turmoil, toil,
Meeting, ambush, camp, redoubt,
And civil, fratricidal war,
Unleashed in Tone’s and Emmett’s name,
By ardour tender as a roar,
And love impervious to blame:
The wandered blind, by Murder led,
Calling Tone — Tyrconnell came instead!
To finish what Wolfe Tone began,
They masked the face in England’s blame
Of Irish folk, and aimed the gun:
Republican name, communal game!
Old watchwords changed, old hopes recast,
“Unity” sunk to sect war cry,
The Rights of Man defined by blast
Of bomb and gun — sectarian lie!
Two peoples fight to hold, regain,
Two songs with one hate-loud refrain.
They’d knock down walls, let in the light;
A mystic’s war would malice drain,
Fresh blood and magic would unite
Hate-scarred tribes mad with disdain!
The fools, the fools! Demented choices:
Known history disowned, misread —
Talk to yourself in pantomime voices
And think to hear the Fenian dead!
Can Erin unite, blood-soldered stones,
Despite her peoples, trampling their bones?
* Richard Talbot, Duke of Tyrconnell, was the Catholic leader in the wars at the end of the 17th century, William of Orange the Protestant king, victor of the decisive battles at the Boyne and Aughrim. Both strove for sectional victory. Wolfe Tone, the founder of Irish republicanism tried to break with that sectional past, proclaiming the goal of uniting the people of Ireland, “Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter”.