If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.
– Moshe Dayan
It is perhaps a good thing that few people today remember that terrorism was once synonymous with the Irish. But the period of conflict in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1998, known as The Troubles, was responsible for around 3,700 deaths and 50,000 injuries in a country of 1.8 million. Had a similar proportion of casualties occurred in the United States, this would have resulted in roughly 636,000 deaths 6.4 million injuries. Along with the high rate of casualties, economic development stagnated and an unquantifiable level of psychological damage drove a generation towards drug abuse, alcoholism, unsafe sexual practices, and suicide.
Martin McGuinness, who passed away on March 21, 2017, serves as an example of man’s ability to change. He grew up in Derry’s rough Bogside neighborhood, surrounded by poverty and police brutality. He joined the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) in 1969 following the deployment of the British Army to Northern Ireland in response to unrest caused by demands for Catholic civil rights. By 1972, he had become the PIRA’s second-in-command. He quickly became the group’s chief negotiator with the British government; however, he still remained active in PIRA’s armed campaign to end British rule in Northern Ireland.
The Troubles emerged out of legitimate concerns on the part of Northern Irish Catholics. Gerrymandering left them without a substantial voice in the Northern Ireland Parliament, and police brutality by the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was a very real concern. Moreover, British intelligence engaged in collective punishment that drove many otherwise politically ambivalent Catholics towards Republican militarism. Yet, Republican paramilitaries were the ones responsible for the majority of civilian deaths. And even though Sinn Feinn claimed to be the legitimate voice of occupied Ireland, the non-violent Social Democratic and Labour Party was the most popular political party amongst Republicans. Thugs, sadists, and racists with delusions of grandeur exploited people’s fears and held a country hostage for two decades.
Northern Ireland’s fortunes changed in 1994 as McGuinness and Gerry Adams, the leader of the PIRA’s political wing Sinn Fein, came to the conclusion that Irish Republicans were more likely to achieve their goals through political means. On April 10th, 1998, a deal was finally made between Republican and Loyalist factions, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland withdrew its constitutional claim to Northern Ireland, a power-sharing executive was created, and all parties agreed that unification of Ireland can only happen with the consent of the majority of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Most importantly, a framework for the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons was created. By 2009, all major paramilitary groups had decommissioned their weapons. Segregation between Catholic and Protestants is still a major issue — and small splinter factions that reject the peace process exist on both sides — but the majority of people and all major political parties are committed to achieving their goals through politics and not violence.
Like many people on both the Republican and Loyalist sides, McGuinness was not a perfect person. The leadership that brought peace to Northern Ireland was also responsible for the deaths of countless innocent people. It held a country of 1.8 million people hostage for three decades. But the path towards peace is never beautiful. As with other peacemakers like Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat, it was a genuine commitment to moving beyond one’s chequered past that ultimately drove McGuinness to reach out to the other side. Of course there were several points where the peace process was in danger of falling apart — such as the 1998 Omagh bombing and the PIRA’s refusal to decommission its weapons until 2001 — but the Good Friday Agreement has persisted to this day. And there is little indication that it will break down in the near future.
Victims of IRA violence will accurately remember Martin McGuinness as a terrorist, and victims of violence carried out by the British government and loyalist paramilitaries will see him as a sellout to Ireland’s enemies. But it has been almost 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. A new generation of adults has only known peace, a fragile one where the memories of conflict are still visible, but a peace nonetheless. This is thanks to the work of people like McGuinness, Gerry Adams, and Ian Paisley — people who were willing to reach out to their enemies and work together for a better future. It would be a disservice to the victims of Republican violence to disregard Martin McGuinness’ paramilitary activities earlier in his life, that much is certain. But for the first time since the Easter Rising of 1916, the people of Ireland now know of a world where violence is not a permanent feature of political life.
To those who care about ending terrorism and sectarian conflict, the Northern Ireland peace process shows that violence and defensive tactics must always be carried out with an eye towards peace. Peace is never easy. It requires commitment and sacrifice from all peoples involved, but it is possible. And leaders owe it to their constituents to work towards it.