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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era