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Mary Kenny: McGuinness continues to astound with his progress

When the history of our time is written, surely one of the most significant characters in Irish national life will turn out to be James Martin Pacelli McGuinness, currently Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

As the world knows, and as he has admitted himself in a court of law, Martin McGuinness was a prominent leader of the Provisional IRA in Derry. Charged, and convicted by the Republic of Ireland's Special Criminal Court in 1973 after he was caught with a vehicle containing 250lbs of explosives, he declared his membership of the Provisional IRA with the ringing words -- "I am a member of Oglaigh na hEireann and very, very proud of it".

Mr McGuinness was not just a member of the Provos, he was a leader. It was said in Derry that the young men of the Bogside, and anywhere else in the nationalist vicinity, would have followed Mr McGuinness to the ends of the earth. They'd have done anything for him: and they clearly did a lot for him which, perhaps, today might be cause for repining. Many lives were lost and many taken during those melancholy years of 'The Troubles'. But we cannot change the past: we have to deal with it.

And Mr McGuinness has dealt with his past in an astounding manner -- and continues to astound us with the course of his career. Once the peace process was under way, he stuck with it persistently. Once he was in government, he, an unlettered man by background -- he left school at 15, and couldn't get a decent job -- addressed himself to the business of learning about politics and the administration of a fair rule of law.

Everyone that Mr McGuinness has worked with seems to admire his seriousness in making the Northern Ireland Assembly operate democratically but also effectively. Two years ago, I interviewed Ian Paisley at the House of Lords at Westminster, and though never fulsome in his praise, Mr Paisley spoke respectfully of Mr McGuinness and how constructive he was as a political colleague. Mr McGuinness had been a significant factor in altering some of Mr Paisley's own approaches.

Whenever the breakaway groups of the IRA have tried, or threatened, to mount a fresh terrorist attack, Mr McGuinness has made a strong speech saying that this was not the way go to forward. It is obvious that he believes we can one day achieve a united Ireland by democratic means. Working solidly away through democracy and the rule of law is perhaps a little less glamorous than dying a patriot's death for Mother Erin, but it is rather more likely to be successful.

Mr McGuinness's latest initiative is that republicans should "hug a unionist", or at least embrace unionists as fellow-Irishmen and women who simply have a different cultural tradition. He has struck up friendships with several protestant clergymen who have been working for peace between the communities.

This weekend Mr McGuinness was especially praised by a cleric he has become close to, the presbyterian David Latimer. Dr Latimer, who served as a padre for the British army, has described Mr McGuinness as "one of the true great leaders of modern times" at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in Belfast.

Let's not get carried away too unrealistically: for his peace-making and bridge-building, Dr Latimer was denounced by some of his own community as a traitor. There will be those in Mr McGuinness's constituency who also think he's taking the love-in with unionists too far. Four centuries of bitter divisions in the North are not going to be healed in a couple of decades by any one man or even several.

But who can doubt that Mr McGuinness indeed has the potential skills of a great political leader? He has that admirable quality of developing in office, learning by experience and applying what he has learned: and still, persuasively, he is usually able to bring his people along with him.

Interestingly, too, he is not particularly charismatic on television: he can come across as dogged and dull. But that can be a sign of a personality of substance, rather than a slick, spin-doctored persona.

A man rooted in his community, conservative in his family values, an observant Catholic without ever being religiously intolerant, Mr McGuinness is possibly now the most impressive political figure in the 32 counties.

His most recent suggestion about the centenary of 1916 is indeed imaginative: that 2016 should be an inclusive celebration, and some care should be taken to reach out to Irish unionists, North and South.

Mr McGuinness understands, because he knows his grass-roots so well, that 1916 is highly significant for Ulster loyalists too: they who were slaughtered at the Somme in that very year, a tragedy from which Edward Carson never fully recovered.

There will be some who feel uneasy about Mr McGuinness's background as a leader in the provos: but it would be disingenuous to pretend that this had never happened before. When Fianna Fail first entered Dail Eireann in 1927, Frank Aiken and Sean Lemass entered the parliamentary chamber each concealing a revolver in his pocket -- part of their transition from gunman to parliamentarian.

Mr Lemass in time became the finest Taoiseach this State has ever had, and Mr Aiken led Ireland into the United Nations in 1956. Time passes, people change: and if they learn from the past, they often change for the better.

Irish Independent