When terrorists become statesmen

I see that Martin McGuinness died the other day. Mr. McGuinness was an Irish republican, a member of the Sinn Fein political party and, until he left politics in part because he was stricken with cancer, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland from 2007 to early 2017.

He was also, according to some, a terrorist.

Mr. McGuinness was a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the 1970s.  Th IRA was, depending on whom you ask, either a terrorist group or a nationalist body fighting for Irish independence from Britain (perspective is everything in this regard).  For what it is worth, Public Safety Canada does not include the organisation on its list of current terrorist entities.

I would rather not enter into a probably irresolvable debate on whether the IRA was or was not a band of terrorists (if they targeted civilians and were ideologically motivated the answer should be yes) but would like to discuss what happens when former terrorists/freedom fighters eschew violence and go mainstream, and in some cases become politicians.  Mr. McGuinness is not the only obvious example of this.  Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had been a member of the Jewish terrorist group Irgun in UK-directed mandate Palestine and Nelson Mandela, revered as a hero in South Africa in part because of his long incarceration under Apartheid, used to fight for the African National Congress, an organisation I am sure the white-controlled regime saw as terrorist in nature.  What should we think of these individuals?

The answer is, I suppose, complicated.  If a person has blood on his or her hands there is a primal need for justice to be seen to be done.  That is not hard to understand.  And yet, several countries – South Africa would be a good example – have had truth and reconciliation commissions and amnesties since those nations have concluded that they have to get past the past, so to speak, and move on.  Some of those who benefit from such programmes surely had violent histories and yet the greater good meant that they were not punished for their crimes.  All of this is fine of course, although if members of my family had been killed by the IRA I am not so sure I would be so forgiving.  I have read a few op-ed pieces in some UK media in which the writer refuses to see Mr. McGuinness as anything but a terrorist.  This may have something to do with the recency effect: it has been quite some time since I have heard of anyone bringing up Mr. Begin’s extremist acts.

It may then be possible for some terrorists to shed the cloak of violent extremism and rejoin mainstream society, under the right circumstances.  I do have a question though.  Does anyone think it even remotely possible that a member of Al Qaeda could one day be seen as a politician and not an ideologically-motivated murderer?  What about Islamic State?  Or the Taliban (in fact, the Talban was in effect the government of Afghanistan in the mid 1990s and 2000s but did anyone think that they were politicians?)?  To my mind individuals who engage in the heinous violence customary of IS would never be accepted as anything but a terrorist.  This of course has implications for de-radicalisaton and re-integration.  Some would say that everyone deserves a second chance but it would be difficult to embrace a person who beheaded ‘infidels’ or threw gays off buildings.

The ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ trope will never be resolved and it is likely that the argument over whether a terrorist ever really changes his or her stripes will likewise continue without end.  Those who elect to stand for office after having belonged to violent extremist groups will have a hard slog ahead of them to be accepted by the mainstream.  I admire their courage but I do not envy their challenge.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply