Dissident threats to McGuinness’s life but Sinn Fein doggedly sticks to political strategy

The targeting of Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister helps to reinforce his modernising credentials.

Sinn Fein has confirmed that dissident Irish republicans in Derry are actively targeting Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and threatening his life. Quoted in the Derry Journal, Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney said:

Over the weekend Martin McGuinness was informed by the PSNI that anti-peace process elements in the city are attempting to ‘stoke up young people to attack and take him out’.

He added:

It is claimed that they have been keeping watch on him and his movements. This threat is consistent with the recent paint bomb attack and the verbal attack on Martin’s wife Bernie outside the family home recently.

At one time, this would have been unthinkable. As the former second-in-command of the Derry brigade of the IRA during the height of the Troubles in the early 1970s, McGuinness’s reputation as Irish republicanism’s hard man was well earned. The writer Eamonn McCann once remarked that the IRA’s assiduous campaign of bombings in the city had left Derry looking as if it had been "bombed from the air".

From militant to peacemaker to statesman, McGuinness has also served as a proxy for Irish republicanism’s rank and file. If Martin thinks it’s the right thing to do, then so do they. Of course, where some see pragmatist others now see sell-out.

However this is not the first time McGuinness has been rumoured to be a target for assassination by former comrades. Wikileaks’s publication of US cables showed Gerry Adams was "particularly concerned" about threats to McGuinness when he met the US consul general Susan Elliott in Belfast back in April 2009.

The reference to this latest threat coming from young people is important. There is a now a generation that has grown up against a backdrop of relative peace in Northern Ireland. However with the number of unemployed 18-24 year-olds in the Foyle constituency (the nationalist part of Derry) currently standing at 1,650, there are no shortage of frustrated and alienated young people willing to lash out at Sinn Fein’s political direction.

Something made much easier by the enduring legacy of Irish republicanism’s many heroes. Indeed, next week begins the annual sequence of solemn commemorations for the ten young men who died on hunger strike in 1981 (starting with Bobby Sands’ on 5 May). To the dissidents, those who refused to bend their principles are the inspiration nowadays, not McGuinness. Despite these backyard problems, the Sinn Fein leadership retains a steely resolve to press ahead with a political settlement – which includes reaching out to unionists.

Here McGuinness’s role as a bridge-builder remains pivotal. In his speech to Sinn Fein’s ard fheis (annual conference) last week, he said: "I am so confident in my Irishness that I have no desire to chip away at the Britishness of my neighbours". So much so, that he urged republicans to "resist celebrating" Margaret Thatcher’s death, despite her being a hate figure of epic proportions to them.

Part of McGuinness’s approach has been his outspokenness when it comes to castigating republican dissidents (which is why he was under threat back in 2009), earning him grudging respect in some unionist quarters. Undeterred, he ridiculed dissidents as recently as last week, asking pointedly, "where were they, when there was a war?"

By being seen to walk the talk as far as reconciliation is concerned, McGuinness hopes to ease the way for Irish unity in the future and convince unionists to accept a referendum sometime after 2016. In terms of these latest threats, McGuinness will be irritated that dissidents are trying to usurp him in his own political backyard. But the upside is that it helps to reinforce his modernising credentials and shows unionists, who are invariably quick to gripe about their own ‘problems with the base,’ that few of them actually face the threat of execution for their troubles.

In his 1996 book Rebel Hearts, journalist Kevin Toolis records McGuiness’s nonchalance when asked about earlier threats to his life:

I am careful about my security but I don’t get up in the morning and say ‘I could be shot by the end of the day’. But I am aware that it could happen. It does not stop me doing the things that I want to do. (P.292)

Of course, back then these remarks were in the context of being a target of assassination by loyalist killers.

Not those from his own side.

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness speaks to the media beside party president Gerry Adams during a press conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.