Terrorist turned Statesman: McGuinness walked political tightrope in final decade of career
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 - Arlene Foster - proved impossible.
Mr McGuinness resigned on January 9 2017 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.
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“I was amongst a group of many young people, supported by many thousands of people in the city, who were 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 23rd 1950 and came from a poor background.
He was the second eldest of seven children and the family of nine lived in a two bedroom house in the Bogside 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 Mr McGuinness determination to become an IRA activist.
The young man quickly 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 solders 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.”
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 membership. He had been caught in a car with a large quantity of explosives and ammunition and refused to recognise the court declaring he was a member of the IRA.
Shortly after his release he married married Bernadette Canning and the couple had two sons, Emmet and Fiachra, and two daughters, Grainne and Fionnuala.
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 British 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 Fein in line with party policy as it would have involved swearing an oath of allegiance to the British Crown.
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During the 1990’s 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 Fein 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 effectively, 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 Arlene 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 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 throughout his career.
A teetotaler, he was a big sports fan. He had played both GAA football and hurling in his youth, was a Manchester United supporter, had a special interest in cricket and a passion for fly-fishing.
Speculation about Mr McGuinness’ health started circulating towards the end of last year (2016) 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.
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 Foster’s refusal to stand aside pending a preliminary report into the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive that could cost taxpayers £490 million.
On January 19 2017 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 and 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.