The biographer's craft as an instrument of war

David Granville reviews Martin McGuinness, from guns to government by Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston, Mainstream Publishing, £15.99 hbk

TOO MUCH political biography, though it may be enjoyable enough to read, falls into the trap of being either a vehicle for hagiography or character assassination. In either case the reader is done a serious disservice.

Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston’s book about Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness, falls into the latter category.

Clarke, the Sunday Times’ Northern Ireland editor, and his journalist-and-researcher wife, have produced a book which, if taken at face value, is likely to sow doubts in the reader’s mind as to the character, political integrity and motivation of its subject.

Indeed, the pair’s security-service contacts surely owe the authors a large drink or two for their efforts next time they are having a cosy chat over the latest selective security leak.

Their account is largely based on a motley collection of old or third-party interviews, quotations from republican literature, information supplied by political rivals and disaffected republicans, the families of those harmed or threatened by the IRA, police informers and the authors’ collection of military and security-service contacts.

All in all, an inauspicious cast list for any attempt to produce a ëbalanced’ biographical account. Then again, a balanced account is exactly what this isn’t and was never intended to be.

McGuinness, with good reason, refused to co-operate as did all senior republicans and those without a specific axe to grind against the Sinn Féin leader.

If we are to believe Clarke and Johnston’s account, McGuinness is simultaneously cowardly, self-interested, hypocritical, ruthless and utterly callous while being intelligent, a brilliant strategist and personally charming.

In short, a man who surely fits the bill of the insincere, untrustworthy, smiling IRA ‘godfather’ of unionist and all ‘right thinking people’s’ nightmares. However, their efforts to undermine McGuinness’s political leadership role, encourage republican dissent and sow distrust among friends and comrades are undermined by a lack of serious political analysis.

Indeed, on this showing, the level of knowledge and original insight the authors have into developments within republicanism amounts to very little.

More disturbing are their insidious suggestions that McGuinness has ‘guardian angels’ in senior echelons of the British security services.

While falling short of suggesting that has been ëbatting for the other team’, they clearly suggest that he has been ëlooked after’ in order to maintain his position in the movement and to avoid both the strictures of British law and the assassin’s gun.

On various occasions they refer to McGuinness exceptional ëgood luck’ at avoiding certain capture or prosecution. They do not overtly suggest that there is anything suspicious in this -- readers are left to draw their own conclusions.

Attempts to smear McGuinness include a repetition, vigorously denied by him and others in the know, that the Sinn Féin leader was responsible for triggering the carnage which followed as British paratroopers ran amok on Bloody Sunday, 1972.

Like all effective disinformation, these smears, and numerous other references and interpretations of events, are delivered without fanfare, arrive in the company of known facts and are never overplayed. This is the deeply invidious drip, drip of the psy-ops rather than the full-frontal assault of the regular troops.

One day when the dust has all settled on the Irish peace process biographies of controversial political leaders like McGuinness and Adams will eventually emerge which don’t fall into the trap mentioned at the start of this review.

In the meantime contributions such as this serve only confirm that, despite the peace process, the conflict is far from resolved. Not so much biography as war propaganda. Read with extreme caution.

February/March 2002

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-02 14:56:56.
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