Then and now: McGuinness still divides

When news that Martin McGuinness had been filmed and interviewed in 1985 for a BBC documentary reached the ears of the British Government, all hell broke loose. Thatcher had already warned that broadcasters must “starve” terrorists of the “oxygen of publicity”.

But that warning was routinely ignored by an opportune Paul Hamann, an experienced BBC documentary makeer. He had, by chance, secured an extended ‘at home’ style interview with McGuinness and his wife, as well as with a vitriolic  Gregory Campbell.


‘Real lives: At the edge of the union’ was against BBC guidelines, kept secret from BBC Director General Alisdair Milne, but days before its broadcast the news of its content leaked to the furore of Thatcher. Then Home secretary Leon Brittan demanded the BBC pull the programme on security grounds. The details of this letter emerged in this 2005 story in The Guardian from a FOI request.

The resulting row almost ruptured the BBC and lead to an unprecedented national strike by journalists leaving an effective news blackout for the strike duration.

These days, rarely a day goes by without McGuinness appearing on the BBC in some form as Deputy First Minister of a Northern Ireland Assembly. However his presence still remains in certain areas controversial. While McGuinness’ comments in the aftermath of the ‘Masserene’ shootings where he called those responsible “traitors to the people of Northern Ireland” inspired general praise across the board, they invoked the ire of the RIRA. The group used its Easter message to issue a death threat against McGuinness.

In many Republican families the comments became the straw that broke the camel’s back. The consequences are there to be seen this Sunday. Some Republican families in East Tyrone had since last year asked for no political speeches from Sinn Fein members at the grave sides of their dead. They did not want their graves and monuments used to further a Sinn Fein strategy they have become increasingly isolated from. In some cases where a family may be of split opinion, they are keeping their memorials non-political to respect those less enamoured with Sinn  Fein.

The trend provoked a stand-off in East Tyrone where Sinn Fein and certain figures who had become influential in the Tyrone National Graves Association came to a head. Tyrone NGA were set up independent of the Dublin NGA to be responsible for maintaining Republican graves and monuments. It was largely intertwined with the provisional movement but the recent tensions with Sinn Fein have resulted in the organisation effectively breaking away from mainstream Republicans.

Sinn Fein have as a result set up the Tyrone Sinn Fein Commemoration Committee to organise the Easter demonstrations themselves, while East Tyrone is fluttered with new discussion groups such as the Thomas Clarke society, bringing together alternative Republican elements that in effect eschew an anti-Sinn Fein strategy.

With Eirigi last week registering as a political party in the South, the trend in Republicanism suggests these discussion groups will eventually form into some sort of political movement or party. It will be interesting to follow the developments of these groups and what action Sinn Fein are preparing to take toward them after the general election.

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About AldousDuke
Mid Tyrone journalist, not so freelance any more.

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