The death of Martin McGuinness has sparked off considerable debate on social media this past few days. His legacy remains as controversial in death, as in life. Some have portrayed him as heroic peacemaker, and others as a mass murderer who should rot in the hottest corner of hell. The former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland thus seems the very incarnation of the old adage that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. He's a Mandela to some and an Osama Bin Laden to others.
Regardless of opinions, his life has been cemented firmly in past, present, and future depictions of Irish and Northern Irish history.
Unfortunately, from analysing language used on social media and in some tabloid newspapers, there is a shocking lack of understanding in British society about recent Irish history. Comments such as "murdering scum" and "RIP Irish filth" have appeared on sites that I frequent, or did until criticising such attitudes. Mentions given to victims usually concentrate on those who died at the hands of the IRA.
It's as if there is only one side of the story, or some people have only ever been exposed to a very simple and singular narrative. In that side of events, Catholics are always depicted as a minority, with no associated reference to their actual numbers. Demographics are rarely mentioned, despite such facts as their impact on the recent Northern Ireland Assembly election.
Associated with this, there is scant reference to deaths on the nationalist side, whether at the hands of loyalists or British security forces. This links into a lack of explaining the context in which Martin McGuinness became a member of an organisation that is so hated in the British public mindset. It is hated for a good reason in many quarters because back at the height of the IRA campaign even Irish people living and working in the UK could have been seen as legitimate targets. That's why it's understandable for people not to sympathise in any way with the IRA's brutality, but that shouldn't get in the way of trying to understand.
This complex historical scenario cannot be simplified to Martin McGuinness captaining a team of bad guys against the honourable forces of a British military that is beyond reproach. There's no doubt that the IRA enacted terrible atrocities on their home island and across the water, but so too did some on the other side.
That's the part which Britain seems never to have addressed in the same way as France has had to struggle with its Algerian past, or America with Vietnam. Granted Northern Ireland is an awful lot closer to home than Vietnam, and is officially a constituent part of the United Kingdom, but there seems no conscious effort in the UK to understand the Irish desire for self-determination. Maybe it's time for people in Britain to engage in discussion about the root causes of the conflict, and the government's role in this.
For people like Martin McGuinness, Britain is not some neutral arbiter of a dispute between two warring sides. Instead, it is an occupying power using the might of numbers to deny Ireland the unity that its people voted for in 1918, before the government of that time decided to abandon democracy, and ignore the vote. Whether or not we agree with that, this position has to be understood in order to make any sense out of the situation.
The IRA did not just emerge out of the blue, but evolved from centuries of conflict, and then decades of systemic discrimination. People don't have to sympathise with them, but they should at least understand the background they come from. That understanding will help move the 1998 Belfast Agreement forward, towards resolving outstanding issues of equality for the culture, symbols, and language of some on the nationalist side.
That Agreement originally came into existence to end the military conflict as much as the political conflict. Because of this, there is necessary ambiguity about some issues, including the long-term constitutional future of Northern Ireland. However, in theory, the Agreement does recognise each side's aspirations as being equal. Unfortunately, in practice, the mention of a united Ireland still draws anger and prejudice in some quarters.
Added to this, it is very rarely mentioned in the mainstream media. This creates the danger that it again becomes a cause embraced by those outside of the mainstream.
Perhaps if this was discussed more in the public eye, the Northern Irish peace process could move on to a stronger sense of everyone's aspirations being equal. That way too, mistakes of the past are less likely to happen again. Additionally, if Unionism believes that Irish nationalists are better off in the UK, they need to engage in discussion, and challenge the arguments made by those in favour of Irish unification. So long as we reduce the argument to 140 characters of rage and turn people into bogeymen, we are just putting an elastic bandage on the deep wounds of the past. Maybe it's time for some kind of move towards a greater sense of permanence, in whatever form that takes.