The controversy occupying the media over the legacy of Martin McGuinness is nothing new. It seems to suggest that people need to pigeon-hole the notable dead in a binary way. They must either be “a Good Thing” or “a Bad Thing” in a Sellars and Yeatman history. But how many people are really either good or bad, saint or sinner? Throughout history great impact has been made by figures whom you might not want to leave alone with a family member. Even the very great may have feet of clay. Occasional media surveys to identify “greatest Briton” regularly turn up Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill as candidates but both had bloody escutcheons. Then there are the “terrorists” turned “statesmen”, the judgement of whom depends as much on one’s political allegiance as on objectivity: Castro; Begin; Arafat; Mao and so many more.
Even in more peaceful arenas those on a pedestal of achievement may have pretty undesirable traits. Artists like Picasso, Simenon and Gill, whose work is so special, would not win many feminist votes; whilst Caravaggio, an artist of pivotal importance was a convicted murderer.
Gladstone, Lloyd George, Major; and further afield Kennedy, Clinton, Mitterand, to name but a few, were far from pure when it came to behaviour yet remain respected in the rear-view mirror of politics. Perhaps hindsight, though, only works after memories had dimmed of the misdemeanours and when the legacies have been seen to have been sustained over time. One suspects that McGuinness will remain in the history books as the first republican power-sharing minister of Northern Ireland, whilst the number who cannot forgive his violent past will dwindle. Like everybody, he was not one thing or the other but a human being with different sides to his life which made him who he was. Perhaps we have to accept that there is a price to be aid for the Good Things.