I woke on 21 March to the sad news that Martin McGuinness, the veteran Irish republican and Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, had died after a short illness. McGuinness was one of the most influential members of Sinn Féin who moved the mainstream republican movement away from the activities of the Provisional Irish Republican Army towards the political peace process. The week after, from the 26 March until 2 April, I travelled with the LSE SU Grimshaw International Relations Club student delegation to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It is only after having seen first-hand how far away an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, or indeed any reconciliation of the Arab world with Israel, is, that I have contemplated how myself, and other people who have grown up in my generation in Northern Ireland, are so lucky to have had a peacemaker like McGuinness to allow us to live, to the most part, a normal life with a safe upbringing.
McGuinness’ upbringing in the city of Derry was difficult in the 1950s and 1960s, as himself and other Catholics in a Catholic- and nationalist-majority city were treated as second-class citizens, the result of electoral boundaries being ‘gerrymandered’ or altered in order to form a Unionist majority in areas even when they form a minority of the population. This was the reality of life for Catholics in what Lord Craigavon (Northern Irish Prime Minister) in 1934 dubbed “a Protestant Parliament [Stormont, the seat of government] for a Protestant People”. With civil rights protestors in the 1960s being attacked by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Unionist mobs, the British Army were called onto the streets in August 1969 to protect Catholic civilians. In a short period, however, their motives became intertwined with protecting the Unionist majority and the introduction of internment in August 1971 saw over 94% of those interned being nationalist, while loyalists weren’t interned for 18 months. By the time the policy was dropped in 1975, the British Army saw itself at war with the Provisional IRA, who in December 1969 had split between those ready to defend Catholics from the Army and those who weren’t (the Official IRA later called a ceasefire in 1972).
McGuinness, in the middle of this, joined the IRA in late 1969 after the split to help defend Catholics in Derry who were subject to harassment by the RUC, the Army and Unionist paramilitaries. He rapidly climbed the ranks and by the time of Bloody Sunday (when 13 civil rights protestors were killed by the Army in Derry) on 30 January 1972, he was second-in-command of the IRA in Derry. Even then, however, journalists and those who encountered McGuinness were enthused by his youthful looks for a brazen paramilitary leader, his astuteness, charisma and intelligence. With these attributes, he was able to develop a significant following in the republican movement and in 1973, he first encountered Gerry Adams on a secret delegation to London to meet the Northern Irish Secretary of State. After being imprisoned in the Republic of Ireland on terror offences, he became more prominent in the Sinn Féin political party, which sought eventually to steer the republican movement and the Provisional IRA towards the political process.
I cannot help but compare the conditions McGuinness faced in his early life to the conditions that Palestinians see themselves facing in the West Bank, due to the nature and reality of illegal Israeli settlements. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention forbids occupying states from transferring parts of their own civilian population into occupied territory. While the Israeli settlers are there voluntarily, the authorisation of settlement building is conducted by the Israeli government. In Hebron in particular, I witnessed first-hand how Palestinians are prohibited from driving on some streets and forbidden from entering others at all. The problem with this is two-fold: the horrible incitement and perceptions of Israelis in Palestinian school textbooks are nearly confirmed by the site of Israelis in settlements living in much more comfortable conditions and destroying the economy of Hebron, where the consequences of settlement building have decimated the city’s old main street. Faced with few other options, extremism seems an attractive option for Palestinians in Hebron. An interview by a journalist from The Times of Israel with a young resident of Hebron shows that young people like Hamas because they are the resistance, rather than because of their politics. Unfortunately, a similar thing can be said of the Provisional IRA in the 1960s and 1970s. The greatest recruitment drive for paramilitary groups are actions by an occupying government and Army. The strongest philosophical argument is that political violence is only justified as a last resort, when all other avenues have been exhausted. Whether Catholic in Northern Ireland facing voting discrimination in the 1920s-60s or Palestinians facing Israeli occupation, no other avenues seem open.
With this in mind, war in such circumstances should be indefinite. However, history has seen some remarkable individuals defy such logic, some even more incredible who remained true to the cause of non-violence. Most notable in these two categories include Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, and in Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness. Indeed it was Gandhi who famously said: “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Indeed when I look back on McGuinness’ transformation into the political process I am reminded of a republican mural I seen once in Belfast: “From Bullet to Ballot – The Evolution of our Revolution”. McGuinness’ influence within the republican movement, amongst Sinn Féin and Provisional IRA members, was crucial in bringing to an end The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The most important step in this was Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA subscribing to the compromises of peace, which was the decommissioning of the Provisional IRA from 1998-2005 (of whom McGuinness was one of the foremost endorsers of such a process) and recognising a united Ireland could only come about with the support of a majority of people in Northern Ireland. These main issues, and others relating to citizenship and the governance of Northern Ireland, were ironed out in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and later the St. Andrews’ Agreement in 2006. The most impressive aspect of the Northern Irish peace process is that McGuinness worked hand-in-hand with one of Unionism’s foremost critics of Sinn Féin and Catholicism, Dr. Ian Paisley. The Northern Irish peace process is living proof that people can change, and that the best way to portray trust is constructive engagement.
In Palestine the same thing must occur. While Israel’s settlement-building is rightfully condemned, their security concerns in the region are sensible. Israel is surrounded by hostile enemies: Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and further afield the Iranians and other Arab states. Jordan is also politically very weak and the political future of Egypt remains unclear. The other requirement for a peace deal is Palestine recognising Israel as a state, like Sinn Féin had to recognise partition and the ending of it only via a political process This was difficult to do and a lot of people within the republican movement branded Sinn Féin ‘traitors’ and armed groups still carry out armed resistance against security personnel. While zero trust exists now between Israeli and Palestinian statesmen, the Northern Irish peace process is evidence that while compromise and building bridges are very difficult, the end result is co-existence and a feeling of peace. Like Northern Ireland, however, any peace process in the region must be a bottom-up process instead of a top-down one, which has on so many occasions failed to bring peace to the region. A lasting peace deal between Israel and Palestine would allow both sides to reconcile with the rest of the Middle East as a whole, so that Israelis can live a life free existential fears, and Palestinians can live a life free from the horrors of occupation and get on with their lives.
A two-state solution is in the interests of all parties except those who wish to continue division. It is in the interests of Hamas to turn the Palestinians against the Israelis. For the Palestinian people, however, any hopes of living a normal life with a chance of relative prosperity is in seeking dialogue with Israel and first accepting their two central demands: recognition of Israel and their security priorities over the region. It would be much easier to say the Palestinians need a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King Jr, but given the extent of the armed conflict they need a Martin McGuinness-like figure to recognise the current state of affairs as counterproductive. In Northern Ireland I don’t think we appreciate how much McGuinness and others have done for us to live normal lives, and I certainly did not until having seen the tenseness of the state of war between Israel and Palestine. Despite being in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians, the weak Palestinian Authority’s lack of criticism of Hamas and the continued settlement-building in the West Bank make it virtually impossible for any Martin McGuinness-like figure on the Palestinian side to gain any traction.