Ex-IRA commander leaves legacy of peacemaking though his own dream is unfulfilled

Martin McGuinness had a commanding role in IRA violence but his contribution to peace will be long remembered, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell

Ex-IRA commander leaves legacy of peacemaking though his own dream is unfulfilled

HOW striking the familiar can be. Yesterday evening, we saw the coffin of IRA leader-turned-statesman, Martin McGuinness, being carried shoulder high through the streets of Derry to his family home by his sons Fiachra and Emmet.

Draped in a brilliantly crisp clean tricolour, McGuinness’s coffin was watched by thousands of mourners on its route back to his home.

At the age of 66, McGuinness lost his battle against the illness which forced his retirement two months ago.

During the Troubles, such processions were sadly so familiar and McGuinness carried more than his fair share of coffins.

Born into the tinder box of a nationalist community under siege in Derry, he was raised in a terraced house in the Bogside housing estate, a one-time no-go area for soldiers and hotbed of IRA planning and activity.

He was educated at the local Christian Brothers school. Unlike Gerry Adams, who came from a traditional hardline republican family, Mr McGuinness showed little interest in politics before the start of the Troubles.

Pictures in 1968 of Gerry Fitt, the Catholic MP for West Belfast, splashed with blood after being hit by police batons as he led a civil rights march shocked him into activism.

A former butcher from the Bogside in Derry, McGuinness was a man of action during the street fighting of the early 1970s and he defended the spilling of copious amounts of blood in pursuit of a united Ireland.

A Derry GAA flag flies at half mast at the ’Free Derry’ wall in the Bogside after the death of Martin McGuinness aged 66. Pic: PA
A Derry GAA flag flies at half mast at the ’Free Derry’ wall in the Bogside after the death of Martin McGuinness aged 66. Pic: PA

In March 1972, the Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, suspended the Northern Ireland government at Stormont and imposed direct rule.

The then Northern secretary, William Whitelaw, sought secret talks with the IRA. Its leaders, Seán Mac Stíofáin and Séamus Twomey, requiring the voice of young activists to be heard, picked McGuinness and Adams to be part of their six-strong delegation to fly to London.

Mr McGuinness’s own version of Irish patriotism evolved from gunboat diplomacy to a ballot box struggle which was to see Sinn Féin become pre-eminent among nationalists and demolish a century-old unionist majority at Stormont following a party vote surge in 2017.

The Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday in 1972 said he “probably” carried a sub-machine gun during the massacre of 13 unarmed civil rights protesters by soldiers in Londonderry. He admitted to being second-in-command of the Provisionals that day.

McGuinness (centre) at the funeral of IRA explosives expert Colm Keenan in 1972.
McGuinness (centre) at the funeral of IRA explosives expert Colm Keenan in 1972.

He was sentenced to six months in prison in the Republic of Ireland after being caught in a car containing large quantities of explosives and ammunition.

The teetotal non-smoker with a love for Gaelic football, cricket and fishing insisted on “purity” from his fellow partisans in the IRA and when in jail in Dublin ordered them to remove pin-up pictures from their cell walls.

MR MCGUINNESS has said he left the IRA in 1974, but few if any people believe that.

Others have suggested he was made chief of staff of the organisation in 1978 and streamlined it into an urban guerrilla force based on small, tightly-controlled cells.

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, in the Irish Examiner today, says that in his view Mr McGuinness had to have still been in the IRA up until much more recently, because if he wasn’t how was he able to know the guys and bring them with him.

In truth, he was integral to nearly every major decision taken by the republican movement over the last 30 years, promising to lead it to a united Ireland.

A Tricolour flies at half mast at the ’Free Derry’ wall in the Bogside after the death of Martin McGuinness, aged 66. Pic: PA
A Tricolour flies at half mast at the ’Free Derry’ wall in the Bogside after the death of Martin McGuinness, aged 66. Pic: PA

He was instrumental in helping secure the IRA’s first cessation of violence in 1994, while in secret contact with the British, and later reflected: “In 1994, dialogue offered the only way out of perpetual conflict.”

In 1997, he was elected Mid Ulster MP but did not take his seat as he would not swear an oath to the Queen.

As Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, he helped establish the powersharing institutions and renounced violence.

Martin McGuinness (rear) and Gerry Adams talk with SDLP Assembly members led by party leader John Hume (seated centre) during the first sitting of the newly-elected Assembly at Stormont in 1998. Pic: PA
Martin McGuinness (rear) and Gerry Adams talk with SDLP Assembly members led by party leader John Hume (seated centre) during the first sitting of the newly-elected Assembly at Stormont in 1998. Pic: PA

In 1999, he became part of a power-sharing coalition of unionists and Irish nationalists at Stormont — he was the chauffeur-driven education minister at the Assembly who scrapped the transfer test taken by children at age 11.

The DUP refused to work with him because of his past.

By 2005, the Provisionals had decommissioned arms after Mr McGuinness led negotiations — a process which started with the armed group vowing to volunteer not an ounce of explosives.

By 2007, Sinn Féin had pledged support for the police force and Ian Paisley, the fiery preacher of “never”, was prepared, as leader of the largest party, to enter government with Sinn Féin.

His partnership at the top of Stormont’s power-sharing administration with fundamentalist unionist leader the Rev Ian Paisley would have been unthinkable in the days when Republican bombs were ripping Northern Ireland and Britain’s cities to shreds and costing hundreds of lives.

Ex-first minister Dr Paisley was the Dr No who vowed to smash Sinn Féin but eventually said yes to sharing power with his foe in an often jovial partnership which saw them dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”.

His partnership with the DUP leader as deputy first minister at Stormont was a shining example of peacemaking — of turning swords into ploughshares — and in 2009 he dubbed dissident republicans who killed a police officer as traitors to Ireland.

He felt the 2012 handshake with the Queen could help define “a new relationship between Britain and Ireland and between the Irish people themselves”. In 2014, he attended a banquet at Windsor Castle as part of a state visit by the Irish President and joined in a toast to the monarch.

But critics argued that just as the IRA should have halted the violence a lot sooner, Mr McGuinness could have met the British head of state earlier.

In 2013, he travelled to Warrington to speak at the invitation of Colin and Wendy Parry, whose son Tim was killed by an IRA bomb, to acknowledge their pain.

But he enjoyed more strained relationships with Mr Paisley’s successor as first minister at Stormont, Peter Robinson, as the joint office was embroiled in controversy over property dealings.

Difficulties also surfaced over welfare reform, investigating thousands of conflict deaths and a green energy scheme which is predicted to be £490m (€566m) overspent.

After a visibly weakened Mr McGuinness gave first minister Arlene Foster an ultimatum to step aside, which was ignored, he announced his resignation in January 2017.

His final significant act was to resign as deputy first minister and take first minister Foster with him, ending a decade of testy coalition government with the DUP.

The coffin of Northern Ireland’s former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness is carried to his home in Derry.
The coffin of Northern Ireland’s former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness is carried to his home in Derry.

That night he stood in the Bogside in the rain, saying his inability to contest the upcoming elections broke his heart, it was clear he was not long for this world.

He has died without his dream of a united Ireland being fulfilled during his tenure. But his contribution to peace on this island will be long remembered.

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