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 and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.