Martin McGuinness became a revolutionary, by his own lights, as a teenager, and ended his life as a bourgeois minister in a political system he had vowed to shun. He died on 21 March, only a couple of months after resigning as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
He was a young commander of the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s. We wrote: “The Northern Ireland Catholics fight in isolation, in the most unfavourable conditions imaginable. The rearguard of the Irish fight for national freedom, they... are simultaneously cut off from the allies that would make an advance on a socialist basis possible — the Orange majority of the Northern Ireland working class” (Workers’ Fight, 23 July 1972).
The Provisional IRA’s campaign had already won a first victory — the abolition, in March 1972, of Protestant-majority home rule in Northern Ireland. Such were the realities, and the limits of the Provisionals’ politics, that the further 22 years of their war could produce only deaths and deep communal division. No further political advance.
McGuinness became a big figure in the Provisionals’ turn to politics, which followed the hunger strikes of 1981. In 1982 the Provisionals dropped their clumsy version of advocating a federal Ireland, and argued (as McGuinness put it in 1995): “Unionists will come to the negotiating table... but they will only do so when the British government actively encourages them to do so”. “Encourage” meaning “coerce”.
He became chief negotiator for the Provisionals up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. It reinstituted the political deal brought in by Britain in the aftermath of 1972, the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement of 1973-4, but in a more intricate institutionalised-sectarian form. In 1974 a Protestant general strike had smashed the deal, but in 1998 the deal survived Protestant resistance.
McGuinness became Minister of Education in a power-sharing regime in 1999, and Deputy First Minister from 2007 to 2017. He refused to take his full minister’s pay. He approved two new integrated schools when education minister, and made a series of real and symbolic concessions to unionism — signing up to support Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), and shaking the Queen’s hand in June 2012, which he described as “in a symbolic way offering the hand of friendship to unionists”.
We wrote in 1995: “The Provisionals will become a narrower communally-based Northern Ireland reproduction of Fianna Fail — which, from origins very like the Provos, became the main party of bourgeois rule in Ireland — or of the smaller, more left-wing, splinter of the 1940s and 50s, Clann na Poblachta”.
Sinn Fein has made more political progress in the South than seemed likely then, or when it dropped abstention from the Dail in 1986. It scored 14% in the February 2016 general election, and is currently running in the polls at about 20%. But the underpinnings, in national-communal division, of the poisonous Partition structures which McGuinness set out to fight remain entrenched. Only working-class and consistently democratic politics will change that.