Martin McGuinness, Irish rebel turned politician, dies
Turning from rebel to peacemaker, McGuinness served as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister for a decade in a Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government.Updated: Mar 21, 2017 20:41 IST
Martin McGuinness, the Irish Republican Army commander who led his underground paramilitary movement toward reconciliation with Britain, died on Tuesday, his Sinn Fein party announced. He was 66.
Turning from rebel to peacemaker, McGuinness served as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister for a decade in a Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government.
The party said he died following a short illness.
McGuinness suffered from amyloidosis, a rare disease with a strain specific to Ireland’s northwest. The chemotherapy required to combat the formation of organ-choking protein deposits quickly sapped him of strength and forced him to start missing government appointments.
“Throughout his life Martin showed great determination, dignity and humility and it was no different during his short illness,” Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said.
“He was a passionate republican who worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation and for the reunification of his country. But above all he loved his family and the people of Derry and he was immensely proud of both.”
Irish President Michael D Higgins said people across Ireland would miss “the leadership he gave, shown most clearly during the difficult times of the peace process, and his commitment to the values of genuine democracy that he demonstrated in the development of the institutions in Northern Ireland.”
Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who worked with McGuinness to forge Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord, expressed “immense gratitude for the part he played in the peace process.”
“Whatever the past, the Martin I knew was a thoughtful, reflective and committed individual,” Blair said. “Once he became the peacemaker he became it wholeheartedly and with no shortage of determined opposition to those who wanted to carry on the war.”
But some who suffered at the hands of the IRA could not forgive.
Former British government minister Norman Tebbit, whose wife was paralysed by the IRA bombing of a hotel in Brighton in 1984, said he hoped McGuinness was “parked in a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of hell for the rest of eternity.”
McGuinness’ transformation into a peacemaker was all the more remarkable because, as a senior IRA commander during the years of gravest Catholic-Protestant violence, he insisted that Northern Ireland must be forced out of the United Kingdom against the wishes of Protestants.
Even after Sinn Fein — the IRA’s legal, public face — started to run for elections in the 1980s, McGuinness insisted as Sinn Fein deputy leader that “armed struggle” remained essential.
“We don’t believe that winning elections and any amount of votes will bring freedom in Ireland,” he told a BBC documentary team in 1986. “At the end of the day, it will be the cutting edge of the IRA that will bring freedom.”
Yet within a few years of making that stubborn vow, McGuinness was exploring the opposite option in covert contacts with British intelligence that led eventually to a truce, inter-party talks and the installation of the IRA icon in the heart of Northern Ireland’s government.
Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole argued in January 2017 that McGuinness had been “a mass killer — during his period of membership and leadership the IRA killed 1,781 people, including 644 civilians — whose personal amiability has been essential to the peace process. If he were not a ruthless and unrepentant exponent of violence, he would never have become such a key figure in bringing violence to an end.”
Unlike his close ally Adams, McGuinness never hid the fact that he had been a commander of the IRA — classed as a terrorist organization by the British, Irish and U.S. governments. Nor could he.
Born May 23, 1950, he joined the breakaway Provisional IRA faction in his native Londonderry — simply Derry to Irish nationalists — after dropping out of high school and working as an apprentice butcher in the late 1960s. At the time, the Catholic civil rights movement faced increasing conflict with the province’s Protestant government and police.
He rose to become Derry’s deputy IRA commander by age 21 as “Provo” bombs systematically wrecked the city centre. Soldiers found it impossible to pass IRA road barricades erected in McGuinness’ Bogside power base.
McGuinness appeared unmasked at early Provisional IRA press conferences. The BBC filmed him walking through the Bogside discussing how the IRA command structure worked and stressing his concern to minimize civilian casualties, an early sign of public relations savvy.
In 1972, Northern Ireland’s bloodiest year, McGuinness joined Adams in a six-man IRA delegation flown by the British government to London for secret face-to-face negotiations during a brief truce. Those talks got nowhere and McGuinness went back on the run until his arrest on New Year’s Eve in the Republic of Ireland near a car loaded with 250 pounds (110 kilograms) of explosives and 4,750 rounds of ammunition.
During one of his two Dublin trials for IRA membership, McGuinness declared from the dock he was “a member of the Derry Brigade of the IRA and I’m very, very proud of it.”
Historians and security analysts agree that McGuinness was promoted to the IRA’s ruling army council following his November 1974 parole from prison and would have overseen many of the group’s most spectacular and divisive attacks. These included bomb attacks on London tourist spots and the use of “human bombs” — civilian employees like cooks and cleaners at British security installations — who were forced to drive car bombs to their places of work and were detonated by remote control before they could raise the alarm.
First Published: Mar 21, 2017 20:41 IST