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“I’d have been ashamed not to join the IRA”

Sophie Elmhirst joins Martin McGuinness on the presidential campaign trail in Dublin, and finds an e

A little girl cartwheels nonchalantly through the hallway at the community centre in Ringsend, east Dublin. Not everyone, it seems, is excited at the prospect of Martin McGuinness's imminent arrival. Nearby, a boy holding a football, crimson-faced and out of breath, turns to a member of staff who is trying to corral the scattered children before the political delegation descends, and says: "So, what do we get for doing this?"

Outside, photographers and cameramen have gathered on one side of the street, the children on the other. The two camps shuffle and whisper in anticipation. A boy stands in the middle of the road yelling, "It's him!" every time he spots a car in the distance. Another TV crew arrives. "Will I be on telly?" asks a girl, already waving at the camera. And then they all surge forward, muscling each other out of the way, a photographer removing a spare child by his shoulders so that he can get a clear view of McGuinness, Sinn Fein's candidate for the Irish presidency in the 27 October election, walking down this street by Dublin's old docks.

He smiles as the children amass around his legs. McGuinness's ability to smile for hours on end, beyond the point of face-ache but in a way that always seems sincere, is noteworthy. "What's your name? And what's your name?" he asks the children one by one. They all give him fake names, giggling. One of their super­visors shakes her head and mutters under her breath that they would "buy and sell you in a day if they could".

The media pack soon takes over, pressing towards McGuinness. The questions are all on a single theme: the television debate that took place last night between the seven presidential candidates on RTE, the Irish state broadcaster. In the course of the programme, the presenter, Miriam O'Callaghan, asked McGuinness how his belief in God squared with his former life as a leading member of the IRA. He complained, and newspaper reports described him taking the presenter into a room after the show for a private conversation from which she emerged "shell-shocked" five minutes later. That's the way the Irish newspapers write about McGuinness: laced with a threat of violence and intimidation, a hardman enforcer in disguise.

Today, however, he's back on track, friendly and upbeat. The smile - a sort of wrinkly grin, grandfatherly (he has five of them) and oddly gentle - is fixed. McGuinness is the "People's President", according to his campaign literature. Visiting community centres of this sort is the "best part of the job", he tells the centre manager, as she leads him through a computer room - where people queue to have their photo taken with him - and out to a football pitch and a string of allotments lining the waterfront.

It's a fine afternoon, cool and sunny, and the photographers are relishing the inevitable prospect of McGuinness shedding his jacket, pushing up his sleeves and kicking a ball. The kids are ready, a goal is set up and he tells the photographers to swing their cameras off him and on to the tiny boy wearing over-large gloves who's sinking low to the ground, pre­paring to save the visitor's shot.

He's good at this, McGuinness. Not all politicians are - especially two tired weeks in to a month-long campaign, traversing Ireland from town to town, interview to interview. He has the gift of chatter, but more than that he looks like he enjoys it. At one point, as we pass the allotments, he tells the manager about his herb garden at home, the satisfaction he gets from growing tarragon and rosemary and thyme. She looks enchanted.

Such homely domesticity is not what you might expect from this former leader of the Irish Republican Army, who claims to have left the organisation in 1974 but whom no one believes. It is widely thought that he remained involved at the highest level throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.

He is associated with years of violence, and has been accused of having a hand in the murders of civilians and soldiers. In 1993, the ITV investigative documentary The Cook Report suggested that McGuinness had encouraged the informer Frank Hegarty to return to Derry from a safe house in London, promising that he wouldn't be hurt. Hegarty came back and was soon murdered. He has also been linked to the 1990 death of Patsy Gillespie, a Catholic cook for the British army who, after his family was taken hostage, was forced to drive a bomb-loaded truck into a Derry army barracks, killing himself and five servicemen. (McGuinness denies any involvement in either case.) A few days before we meet, McGuinness has been confronted by the son of an Irish soldier, Patrick Kelly, killed by the IRA in 1983. These violent deaths are still close, still remembered.

McGuinness has since become a figurehead for peace, as Sinn Fein's lead negotiator in the long process leading to the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, and then, following the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, serving first under Ian Paisley and then Peter Robinson. Paisley and McGuinness, once consumed by mutual loathing, became something approaching friends (an Ulster Unionist nicknamed them the Chuckle Brothers).

In his 2008 book Great Hatred, Little Room, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff, describes the highly charged early meetings they had with Gerry Adams and McGuinness (Powell's brother Charles, a foreign affairs adviser to Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister, had been on an IRA hit list for seven years): "It was a curiosity to meet people who had been demonised throughout my adult life. Television had not even been able legally to broadcast their voices and so for years the slightly threatening, bearded face of Adams and the clear, chilling eyes of McGuinness had been overlaid by the voices of actors." But there they both were, sitting in front of him, far more flexible, "articulate and interesting" than he had expected.

This is the side of his political life that McGuinness wants the Irish people to remember: the reformed man, the young, hot-headed idealist who learned the error of his ways and forged peace, an achievement that still wins him plaudits from around the world (his campaign website features photographs of him with Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela). To some in Ireland he is a hero - a man who stood up for the oppressed, who fought the British. To others, he was, is and will always be a criminal.

When we talk later on, after a rally in central Dublin, McGuinness concedes that he never thought he would stand for the presidency; that it would be his name printed on the side of a huge campaign bus. Sinn Fein, now the third-largest party in Ireland after the collapse of Fianna Fail in last February's general election, lacked a candidate. Gerry Adams ruled himself out; McGuinness was asked and, after much deliberation, said yes. What convinced him? "The dire state of the economy in the south and the need to stand up against the selfish and the greedy; those people who awarded themselves the big salaries, the big pensions and the big bonuses, effectively plunging the people of this country into misery and despair."

He knew that his opponents would relish dragging up his past. "I was prepared that people who felt that their position was threatened by entry into the race would stoop to any tactic to try to undermine the campaign," he says. "But you know, isn't it amazing that many of us have made peace with each other from the north and are working together to build a better future, yet we've seen a reaction to my involvement in this election from people who have yet to understand the art of peacemaking?"

This is his tactic: after any mention of his violent past, McGuinness reminds you of what came next - his status as a peacemaker. Who else among the candidates (they include the Irish-American singer and Eurovision contest winner Dana Scallon and an Irish Dragons' Den panellist, Seán Gallagher) has secured a peace deal ending years of conflict? McGuinness has unveiled other tricks, too. He has refused, as a symbolic gesture, to take his full salary if elected, proposing to take the average industrial wage instead and use the surplus to rescue six young people from the dole queue, funding their employment.

Such ideas chime well at our next stop on the campaign trail, a drug addiction centre in Irishtown, a poor neighbourhood in east Dublin. He listens to the former addicts who depend on the centre to stay clean and then to a speech from its manager about how funding cuts will threaten the service. He invites them all to the president's house once he's inside. "I'll be the voice of the voiceless," he promises.

There are more photos, more handshakes. With all the hugs and smiles, children thrust into his arms, it's closer to a US campaign than the awkwardly staged encounters of a British election. To these people, McGuinness - despite his suit and tie - is somewhere between a war hero and aged rock star.

After we leave the centre, he slips away with his advisers to rest before the evening event, a rally at the Mansion House in the centre of the city. He has been on the move since morning, travelling, meeting and greeting, and this will be a grand occasion: a roll-call of Irish celebrities, from sportsmen to Hollywood actors, is due to endorse him in front of the audience of 400. Long before he arrives, the media are once again on the pavement outside, waiting. As before, he makes a walking entrance, in classic politician-at-ease style, this time accompanied by his wife, Bernadette, and two sons. They stand in front of the banks of photographers, blinking into the flashes. As I follow him into the main hall, the swelling roar erupts as he enters, the large crowd up on its feet, music soaring over the noise.

The photographers race to snap him embracing Adams, who is sitting on the front row. It feels like a festival - there are whole families here, children on their fathers' shoulders, girls dressed up, old men cheering. On stage, the actor Colm Meaney (Star Trek, The Commitments) presides, introducing folk musicians, a hurler and a footballer, among others, all of whom make speeches of support.

At the climax of the long evening, McGuinness is summoned to the stage. He calms the feverish crowd. His oratorical style is understated; he's no grandstander, no tub-thumper. The speech is delivered quietly, evenly, and the best parts are the most personal - even one of his advisers confides that his attempts at rabble-rousing and policy prescription fall a little flat. The guests are most engaged when his voice drops and he tells the story of his life: born in 1950 on the Bogside in Derry, his father a foundry worker and devout Catholic who took communion every day, his mother a worker in a shirt factory. His parents, he says, supported him even when he joined the IRA as a teenager.

By the age of 21, he was second-in-command of the IRA in Derry and was convicted in 1973 by the Republic of Ireland's Special Criminal Court after being caught with a car full of explosives and ammunition. He was given a six-month sentence. The following year, he married Bernadette after they were introduced by a friend, Colm, who always dressed like a Bay City Roller, and was later shot dead by a British soldier. He sounds choked at the memory. As if in direct response to his hounding in the television debate last night and the accusations in the newspapers over the past month, he squares up to the doubts, describing the years of oppression he and his friends in Derry endured at the hands of the British and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. "I would have been ashamed not to join the IRA," he says. The statement is met with whistles and long, warm applause.

At the end of the speech, the music kicks in, the audience rises and the hurler, the footballer and all the other speakers join him on stage as streamers fall from the ceiling. One of his advisers leads me up to a gallery, away from the fray, and we watch from above as McGuinness says hello to anyone who approaches while a press officer helplessly tries to extract him from the teeming admirers. Eventually he comes up, wearing the glassy-eyed stare of a man who has just emerged from bright lights and a boisterous crowd. I ask him if he feels like a different person from the man he described in his speech, the teenager who joined the IRA.

“When I was 21 years of age I never thought I'd live to 25," he replies. "We lived in a war zone - it was absolutely terrible. There is nothing glorious or great about war." It's a more humble tone from the mock-heroism of earlier. "I'm just glad that I've been part of what is, I suppose, a very small group of people who have effectively brought that to an end."

His task now, he says, is to unify Ireland, for north and south to become one country - a mission that will be thwarted at every turn by the unionists in the north. How can he deliver on such a promise? McGuinness describes it as "a process of evolution". Already, he says, "we have united the people of Ireland behind peace. And we have united the people of Ireland against violence. We're part of the All-Ireland Ministerial Council, the North/South Ministerial Council, where we meet with our counterparts in Dublin." He plans, if elected, to implement a ten-year period of reconciliation, an extension of the community work he has already done in the north with the Presbyterian minister David Latimer and the Catholic priest Michael Canny. Even if true unity is a distant dream, he feels he can get close symbolically.

We don't have long to talk. I ask him if he's still in touch with Blair ("He sent me a Christmas card," he laughs, and then hotly denounces Blair's Iraq misadventure), but his press officer is anxious to take him away. Every minute on the campaign is accounted for, and though it is late and he's tired, McGuinness's engagements are not over yet. We talk about his love of poetry - his heroes are Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney - and about how he no longer has much time to write his own. Then he is whisked down the stairs and out of the hall.

I watch him go and hang behind until I'm the only one left apart from the technicians dismantling the stage and the caretakers sweeping up the streamers. But when I walk out of the hall, there is the press officer, sitting on the wall with a look of surrender on his face, and behind him is McGuinness, being collared by an elderly supporter to whom he is listening carefully, taking in every word, nodding and agreeing and still, after all this time, somehow smiling.

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying

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The war within wars

Why the Western-backed assault on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is failing.

The first signs of a Western-backed attempt to recapture Raqqa, ­Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, came a fortnight ago when fighter jets dropped leaflets over the city telling residents to leave. “The time has come,” the warnings read, alongside an illustration of residents evacuating the city as incoming forces overran IS fighters.

Although up to half of Raqqa’s residents fled when IS first took control of the city in 2014, the militants have made it ­increasingly difficult for the people who stayed behind to leave. Following the US-led coalition’s warnings of an impending attack, however, the jihadis relaxed their restrictions on movement. Citizens were allowed to disperse into the nearby countryside. The idea was to spare them whatever onslaught was planned against Raqqa while keeping them within IS territory.

Ever since the latest offensive against IS began in Syria and Iraq in late May, it has become clear that the group will not concede territory easily around Raqqa – or elsewhere. It might lose small villages from time to time, but all of its major urban centres remain well fortified. Few observers expect them to fall any day soon. IS has too much invested in Raqqa, as well as Mosul in Iraq. Occupying the cities fuels the group’s prestige by projecting the impression of ­viable statehood and by allowing it to house fighters and military equipment.

Raqqa is the nerve centre of IS operations. Several training camps are located on its outskirts, including those used to plan attacks against the West. IS has long anti­cipated a revanchist campaign against its Syrian base and has fortified the city by surrounding it with trenches and landmines to thwart any hostile advance.

What makes the fight against IS even more challenging is that its fighters are not easily disheartened. Before this latest campaign, I spoke by Skype to a British fighter from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, about how the group perceives territorial losses. He responded with the kind of fatalistic indifference that only the faithful enjoy. Their obligation, he told me, was simply to try their best. The challenge for them was to fight with all they have. Results come from Allah, so, if defeat and setbacks follow, then it is the will of God.

There are two possible interpretations, in their reasoning, for why God might not deliver success for them – because He is punishing or testing them. Either way, the conclusion is the same: to double down on their commitment. In that spirit, they are resolved to fight until victory or martyrdom – and both outcomes represent success. This reasoning shows just how hard it can be to erode the morale of IS’s most doctrinaire fighters (though not all are so zealous in their commitment).

***

The ground push for Raqqa has been overseen by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are led principally by the YPG, an ethnically Kurdish unit of fighters concentrated in north-eastern Syria. Although the SDF officially claims to be an umbrella movement for more than 20 different fighting groups – some of which are Arab – its heavily Kurdish composition has made it a reluctant and unsuitable partner in the push to liberate Raqqa.

To understand the reasons why, it is necessary to parse the conflict into its constituent parts. We often hear about the sectarian dimensions of the Syrian civil war, yet this is just one aspect of a much broader tapestry. Syria is a series of wars within a war. Just as there are sectarian components, there are strong ethnic dimensions, too. These are especially pronounced in the northern regions where the Kurds, with their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness, stand apart from their Arab neighbours.

The Kurds have usually formed defensive fighting units in the Syrian conflict, preferring to safeguard and administer their own areas rather than acquire new territory such as Raqqa. Another issue is that Arab ­civilians are reluctant to have non-Arabs push into their cities. The anti-IS activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) says that residents worry about ethnic retribution against an Arab population that is seen as having historically oppressed the Kurds. Many reason that it is better to keep IS and deal with the devil they know.

Those fears are not unfounded. With the horrors of IS and the Syrian army so magnified, it is easy to forget that every fighting group in this conflict has violated human rights and continues to do so. The Kurds are no exception; in October, Amnesty ­International accused Kurdish fighters of war crimes after they razed Arab villages in al-Hasakah and al-Raqqa Governorates. All of this adds to the intractability of the war, forcing people to seek security within their communal, sectarian or ethnic circles. Syrians are hardly unique in this respect; they are merely repeating a pattern of countless conflicts around the world.

This makes it extremely difficult for the West, which is reliant on local forces to do the fighting. The US is supporting al-Hashd al-Shaabi (meaning “popular mobilisation committee”), a nominally Iraqi force leading the assault against IS in Fallujah. Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has made two main claims about al-Hashd al-Shaabi: that it is a non-sectarian movement of ordinary Iraqis from all sections of society who want to drive IS from the country, and that its leadership reports to him personally.

Neither of these claims is accurate. It is true that some divisions of al-Hashd al-Shaabi comprise Sunni fighters, but it is overwhelmingly dominated by Shias. Its military campaigns are directed not from Baghdad, but Tehran. These efforts are overseen by Qasem Soleimani, a celebrated Iranian major general in the elite Quds Force, who is perhaps the most important military official with a battlefield presence in Syria and Iraq. He previously orchestrated several successful campaigns for President Bashar al-Assad and the al-Abadi force.

Though the ongoing assaults on Raqqa and Fallujah have put IS under pressure on two fronts, anyone hoping this might signal a turning point in the conflict is likely to be disappointed. For every push that shunts IS backwards – often only marginally – many new recruits are spawned.

Videos released on social media from the latest assault on Fallujah appear to show how incoming Shia fighters have beaten and tortured Sunni civilians. The pictures of abuse are overlaid with sectarian slurs, often invoking sensitive points of disputed Sunni/Shia theology. These resound across the region and arguably do even more damage than the images of abuse.

The rapid deterioration in sectarian relations that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq explains how IS was able to capture Sunni areas of Iraq with such ease. Ordinary residents do not necessarily agree with the authoritarian strictures of its regime, but they mostly understand them. These latest outrages from incoming al-Hashd al-Shaabi fighters will only fuel the belief among Sunnis that they are best served by Sunni administrations – however brutal.

Islamic State has repeatedly invoked the vulnerability of the Sunnis across the Levant to justify its violence. This is the constituency in whose name it claims to act and whose interests it claims to defend.

Shortly after IS first captured Mosul, in June 2014, the group released a video, aimed at Iraqi Sunnis, explaining how both the West and Iraqi Shias had conspired against them in 2003. The result had been a decline in Sunni fortunes and increased insecurity as Shia death squads sought revenge after decades of repression and abuse.

This resonated strongly with Sunnis such as the Albu Mahal and al-Qa’im tribes, which had supported the US-led “awakening”, a military strategy initiated in 2005 to encourage Sunni Iraqi tribes to fight against the insurgency initiated by al-Qaeda. IS captured the heads of those tribes and forgave them for fighting alongside the West against al-Qaeda in Iraq. We are not accustomed to seeing videos of IS pardoning captives, but this was as careful and calculated as any of its ultra-violent theatre. The exercise was designed to project the group as a bastion of Sunni honour and security.

That is the story behind so much of IS’s strength today: the fears of the vulnerable Sunni poor over whom militants govern. Remove that constituency, and the group would collapse. But the Obama administration has done little to allay Sunni fears. Rather, it has exacerbated them by launching air strikes against IS targets in Fallujah, fuelling a perception that it is working hand-in-glove with Shia militias loyal to Iran.

***

The latest attempt to seize IS terri­tory points towards a more pressing question: what, actually, is Islamic State? During a recent meeting at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, one analyst brilliantly described the mercurial nature of the group. To residents of Raqqa, it appears as a proto-state, replete with all the nomenclature of statehood: an executive, judiciary, police force and civil administration. To rebel groups in the north and for President Assad in Syria, it is more of an aggressive insurgent movement with which there are periodic battles for control of land. For the French and Belgians, it feels more like a conventional terrorist group that deploys suicide bombers and gunmen to kill as many civilians as possible.

Such is the kaleidoscopic nature of IS that there is no reason why it cannot assume multiple forms at the same time, or why it can’t move from one to the other. If the territory in which it operates is overrun, it will revert to being a conventional terrorist movement that unleashes waves of attacks against the West and others. IS has already demonstrated both its willingness and ability to strike in Europe, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey.

It now also appears an American man, Omar Mateen, self-identified with Islamic State and affiliated himself to the group in order to carry out the most deadly act of US domestic terrorism since the 11 September 2001 attacks. Mateen killed 49 revellers, and injured more than another 50, at a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, on 12 June. The ability of individuals to align themselves with IS despite having no tangible links to it underscores the difficulties of acting decisively against the group. Indeed, this is precisely what IS has advocated. A few days ago, its official spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, repeated his call for individuals to launch attacks in the West on the group’s behalf. Following the Orlando massacre, supporters have already suggested copycat attacks in Paris, London and Washington.

By way of comparison, let’s consider what al-Qaeda looked like on the day after the 9/11 attacks. What the West faced was a small group – of perhaps 500 key individuals, if we’re generous – committed to its programme of global jihad. By contrast, even conservative estimates today place ­Islamic State’s manpower somewhere in excess of 20,000. And no one has yet convincingly addressed how to mitigate the threats that will emerge from the region should IS suffer a sudden loss of territory.

IS’s control of large parts of Syria and Iraq will not end quickly. Not only is the group embedded and emboldened, but it enjoys the strategic advantage that comes with being able to operate across two (however nominally) sovereign states. In that respect, the Syrian and Iraqi crises embody all the difficulties of the last hyphenated conflict of the past decade, the so-called challenge of “Af-Pak” (Afghanistan and Pakistan). There, the US found that whenever it pushed against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, they disappeared over the border. When Pakistan did the same, insurgents moved the other way.

Many of the same issues undermine Western-backed attempts to eradicate IS today. When it allowed civilians to move from Raqqa into the countryside, its own families, fighters and supporters were moved
as well. It has also begun moving critical personnel and heavy arms out of Raqqa, repositioning them near the Iraqi border. In the unlikely event that its operations in Syria are severely compromised, it will fall back into its Iraqi hideouts, and vice versa.

Pressuring IS, therefore, is like squeezing the air in a balloon: push on one area and it moves to another place. In Syria, even as IS militants fight to defend their territory in Raqqa, they have made gains in the ­Aleppo Governorate, moving ever closer to the strategic town of Azaz. Whoever controls Azaz also controls the nearby Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey, an important source of revenue and influence. IS previously occupied Azaz but abandoned it in 2014 to consolidate its control in Raqqa. That the group is close to recapturing Azaz at a time when the Obama administration wants to suggest that IS faces an existential crisis shows just how fissiparous and ­intractable this conflict remains.

Shiraz Maher is an NS contributing writer and the deputy director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. His book, “Salafi-Jihadism: the History of an Idea”, is newly published by C Hurst & Co

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink