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.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.