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Tuesday 20 February 2018

Martin McGuinness: Proud IRA man hoped history would judge political legacy fairly


Martin McGuinness 1950-2017. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Martin McGuinness 1950-2017. Photo: AFP/Getty Images Newsdesk Newsdesk

Terrorist turned statesman Martin McGuinness walked a political tightrope for the last decade of his life.

That rope snapped with the appointment of Arlene Foster as Northern Ireland first minister.

Mr McGuinness called the decade "difficult and testing years" when, as deputy first minister for Northern Ireland, he shared power with successive DUP leaders.

During that time he surprisingly formed a deep friendship with the first leader - his one-time deadly enemy Ian Paisley. He managed to find common ground with the second - Peter Robinson, who was considered to be even more anti-republican than his predecessor.

Working with the third - Mrs Foster - proved impossible.

Read more: Friends applaud as flag-draped coffin of Martin McGuinness is taken home

Mr McGuinness resigned on January 9 and triggered an election. He announced his resignation from politics 10 days later citing ill health.

The man, once described as "Britain's number one terrorist", had moved from his top post in the IRA to take a major role in the Northern Ireland peace process. He never denied his previous IRA activity declaring he was "proud that I was a member of the IRA".

He explained that at the time in Derry: "We found ourselves in a situation where the British army and the RUC were on our streets murdering our citizens.

"I was amongst a group of many young people, supported by many thousands of people in the city, who was prepared to stand against them.

"I am not ashamed of that. I think it was the right thing to do."

He was "equally proud", however, of the role he played over 25 years "in developing the peace process that has changed all that".

Mr McGuinness was born on May 23, 1950, and came from a poor background. He was the second eldest of seven children and the family of nine lived in a two-bedroomed house in the Bogside area in Derry. He left school at 15 and was turned down in one of his first job applications simply because he was a Catholic.

The shooting dead of two Catholics by British soldiers on a single day in Derry confirmed his determination to become an IRA activist. The young man rose through the IRA ranks and was second in command in Derry at the time of Bloody Sunday (January 30, 1972), when the British army parachute regiment shot dead 14 unarmed civilians at a civil rights march.

Over the previous 16 months a total of 26 British soldiers had been killed by the Provisionals in Derry.

During his long public career, Mr McGuinness consistently refused to say how many people he might have killed while in the IRA.

"I never talk about shooting anybody. But I do acknowledge that I was a member of the IRA and as a member of the IRA I obviously engaged in fighting back against the British army," he said.

His first attempt at peace making was in July of 1972 as part of a seven-member IRA delegation flown to London to meet Northern Ireland secretary of state William Whitelaw. These talks were unsuccessful.

A year later, his membership of the IRA was publicly confirmed at the Special Criminal Court in Dublin, which sentenced him to six months in prison for the crime. He had been caught in a car with a large quantity of explosives and refused to recognise the court, declaring he was a member of the IRA. Shortly after his release he married Bernadette Canning and the couple had two sons, Emmet and Fiachra, and two daughters, Gráinne and Fionnuala.

Read more: Terrorist turned Statesman: McGuinness walked political tightrope in final decade of career

Fast forward a decade and Mr McGuinness had changed to the view that politics was the best way to make progress. He stood for election to the House of Commons but it took three tries to be finally elected in 1997 to represent the constituency of Mid Ulster.

Even then he refused to take the seat for Sinn Féin, in line with party policy, as it would have involved swearing an oath of allegiance to the British Crown.

During the 1990s, he was the IRA's chief negotiator in secret talks that ultimately brought about the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The agreement led to the new Northern Ireland Assembly and Mr McGuinness was appointed minister of education in that very short-lived government.

A new agreement was reached in 2006 and Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party, as the two largest parties in the Assembly, formed a power-sharing executive.

DUP leader Ian Paisley became first minister and Mr McGuinness was appointed deputy first minister, a post he held for the next 10 years.

He briefly stepped aside in 2011 to contest the Irish presidential election but when he came third in that race he returned to the Assembly within days.

Mr McGuinness said his goal during his years as deputy first minister was to "seek resolutions rather than recrimination" despite the two power-sharing parties being "diametrically opposed ideologically and politically".

A public confirmation of this came on June 27, 2012 when he shook hands with Queen Elizabeth during a visit by the British monarch to Belfast. He said afterwards that in doing so "I am symbolically, shaking the hands of hundreds of thousands of unionists".

Most of the time as deputy first minister he kept his opinions unspoken as he tried to make the power-sharing government work. When Mrs Foster took over as first minister the relationship between the two leaders became increasingly strained. Mr McGuinness finally spoke frankly in his resignation letter where he referred to the "deep-seated arrogance" of Mrs Foster and how this was "inflicting enormous damage on the Executive, the Assembly and the entire public body".

He revealed too the "deep personal frustration" he had felt over the previous years when his efforts to find resolutions were "not always reciprocated by unionist leaders" and at times "met with outright rejection".

This was despite his being "stretched and challenged by republicans and nationalists in my determination to reach out to our unionist neighbours".

The former deputy first minister kept his personal life very private.

A teetotaler, he was a big sports fan. He had played both GAA football and hurling in his youth, was a Manchester United supporter, and had a passion for fly-fishing.

Speculation about Mr McGuinness's health started circulating towards the end of last year when he withdrew from a planned visit to China on medical advice. He was furious when newspapers published reports that he was suffering from a genetic disease called amyloidosis, which affects the heart and other organs.

Timeline: Martin McGuinness led a successful career full of major political moments

Despite looking quite ill in television appearances, he insisted he had a right to privacy about his medical condition.

He also denied that his decision to quit had anything to do with the health problems.

He said he was reluctantly stepping down because of Mrs Foster's refusal to stand aside pending a preliminary report into the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive that could cost taxpayers £490m (€566m).

On January 19, Mr McGuinness announced his retirement from politics and admitted "unfortunately I have been taken seriously ill".

He was determined to overcome the illness, he added, but "the reality is that I am not physically able to put the energy and effort that is needed into this election so I will not be standing in the election". He told his supporters he was "heartbroken" by the decision.

Of his time in the IRA he said he did regret that people lost their lives but did not apologise for fighting for people's civil rights.

"The difficulty is that we effectively ended up in what was a vicious cycle of conflict in which an awful lot of people got hurt and an awful lot of people got killed, British soldiers, innocent civilians and defenceless prisoners."

He hoped, he said, that history would judge him fairly.

A life in short

May 23, 1950: Martin McGuinness is born in Derry, one of seven children.

October 5, 1968: Two days of rioting in Derry after a civil rights march is broken up by the RUC. Many view this as the starting point for the Troubles.

August 1969: The 'battle of the Bogside' follows an Apprentice Boys' parade in Derry. British troops deployed on the streets of Derry and Belfast.

1970: Mr McGuinness is working as a trainee butcher but he decides to abandon his job. He joins the IRA and quickly rises through its ranks.

January 30, 1972: By the age of 21, he is second-in-command of the IRA in Derry at the time of the Bloody Sunday shootings, where 13 unarmed civil rights protesters are murdered by British soldiers in Derry.

July 7, 1972: Mr McGuinness is part of an IRA delegation flown to London for negotiations with Northern Ireland secretary William Whitelaw.

1973: Mr McGuinness is convicted by the Special Criminal Court.

1974: He marries Bernie Canning in Donegal. They go on to have two boys and two girls.

1977 - 1982: Although the full details of his IRA involvement are disputed, it is believed he is chief of staff around this period.

August 27, 1979: The queen's cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten is killed by the IRA off the coast of Sligo. Hours later 18 British paratroopers are also killed in an IRA ambush.

October 20, 1982: Mr McGuinness wins a seat in the Stormont Assembly.

July 1997: The IRA calls a fresh cease fire to allow peace talks.

April 10, 1998: The Good Friday Agreement. Mr McGuinness is nominated by Sinn Féin for education minister in December 1999.

May 2007: Mr McGuinness is appointed as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

2011: Mr McGuinness runs as the Sinn Féin candidate in the Irish presidential election. He places third in the first preference vote.

June 2012: Queen Elizabeth shakes hands with Mr McGuinness in Belfast.

January 9, 2017: Mr McGuinness resigns as deputy first minister in protest at Stormont's handling of a failed energy scheme. Ten days later he announces that he's quitting frontline politics to fight illness.

March 21, 2017: Mr McGuinness passes away in Derry.

Irish Independent

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