Terrorists or freedom fighters: when should we talk to the enemy?

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Martin McGuinness responds to those that label him a ‘terrorist’, justifies the use of violence at times, and reveals an admiration for Tony Blair.

Security measures were at their tightest at the Oxford Union, with Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and former IRA member, making an appearance on Al Jazeera’s ‘Head to Head’ debate.

In front of the jam-packed audience, Mehdi Hasan kicked things off in his no-nonsense approach, asking McGuinness to respond to the statement: ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. McGuinness replied deftly, defending himself and the IRA, by accusing several governments of using the term ‘terrorist’ to label those who dare to act against them. After all, even Nelson Mandela was labelled a terrorist by Margaret Thatcher, he explained.

But surely, Hasan questioned, wasn’t this eluding the point that deliberately taking the lives of innocent people is blatant terrorism, something the IRA partook in? It seems many people just do not appreciate the background or context, according to McGuinness. Regarding himself as a victim of oppression – someone who was forced to live like a second class citizen in his own hometown – he can still vividly picture the British Army callously shooting down innocent civilians.

Does this justify the IRA slaughtering innocent people in retaliation? McGuinness put this down to “circumstances…innocent people lose their lives in all conflicts”, and the IRA “could have killed thousands on the streets of London and in Northern Ireland” had it wanted to.

However, it was what followed that seemed to spark the most acrimony amongst audience members. McGuinness asserted that the reason behind several of the IRA’s attacks on innocent civilians was not because the IRA had “set out to kill”, but rather because they had “made a mess of an operation” which had not gone to plan. Hasan interjected, asking whether the Patrick Gillespie proxy bomb was such an operation that had not quite “gone to plan”, which received a rapturous round of applause from the audience. Equally well received was Hasan’s comment “You’re saying: ‘Well, we are not Al-Qaeda, so give us a break’.”

Seated amongst the crowd was Victor Baker, whose 12 year old son was killed in the 1998 Omagh Bombing. Seemingly disgusted with McGuinness for accepting no responsibility whatsoever in Gillespie’s death, Baker felt the ‘once a terrorist, always a terrorist’ tag fitted the Deputy First Minister perfectly. Guest panellist Professor Louise Richardson also shared the opinion that the IRA was a terrorist organisation, despite admitting that she had thought about joining the group herself at one stage.

Following a short intermission, Hasan fired perhaps the most intriguing question at McGuinness: what had inspired him to leave the heartless violence of the IRA and actively join in the peace process? McGuinness revealed how his meeting with Tony Blair had been the turning point for him, where Blair accepted that “we were as responsible as anyone for the situation in Northern Ireland”. Not only did this encourage McGuinness to engage with the British, but it also reassured him that they were “willing to learn”. Now, he believes the peace process is “rock solid”.

Hasan introduced McGuinness as a “controversial figure” at the start of the programme, and some may have agreed with this statement after he declaimed, “I am proud to have been part of the IRA”. Nevertheless, he openly admitted that there are “things that the IRA [have] done that were wrong”. Would McGuinness like to apologise to the victims of IRA bombings? “I am absolutely prepared to say sorry to people whose lives I have affected”, he insisted.

So, what few words of wisdom can Martin McGuinness leave us with moving forward? “Dialogue and engagement are of critical importance…most people are willing to negotiate”. Although McGuinness might not have been the most popular guest to have visited the Oxford Union, he made it a point to finish on an optimistic note:

“I cannot change the past…but I can ensure that it never happens again”.