Martin McGuinness showed the power of change

The day, just over a week ago, that Martin McGuinness announced he was resigning as Stormont’s deputy first minister it seemed probable his announcement was just a preliminary one, a precursor to an enforced and complete withdrawal from day-to-day political life.
Martin McGuinness showed the power of change

That day he seemed so unwell, so weakened that even that day’s effort drained him. And so it transpires, illness has forced McGuinness to reluctantly announce his retirement from political life.

Irrespective of how you view his careers — first as an IRA commander and later as a Sinn Féin leader — it would be wrong not to acknowledge that he was one of the most important political figures on this island during the last half century.

Without him, it may have been far more difficult than it was to establish and maintain the peace these islands now enjoy. He resonated integrity, conviction and courage, even if it took half a lifetime for him to bring these qualities to bear exclusively in the democratic process.

The other side of that coin is undeniable — McGuinness was first a ruthless leader of a terrorist organisation that was responsible for some 1,800 murders. Without the IRA, and the tit-for-tat atrocities of their Loyalist and British government counterparts, a peace process would not have been necessary in the first place.

Had McGuinness and his contemporaries not responded to the violence, injustices and uncontrolled bigotry imposed on their community, had they had faith in democracy, despite generations of subjugation, the peace process would not have been necessary.

Had they, like John Hume, recognised earlier that any endgame involved negotiation rather than more car bombs, how many lives might have been saved? History shows, however, that McGuinness and his colleagues are not the only ones who must answer those questions.

As a young man of 22 he travelled to London in 1972 with an IRA delegation that met secretly with William Whitelaw. Had those talks, and more like them — always officially denied — borne fruit before Margaret Thatcher’s unhinged autocracy made peace all but impossible, the Troubles might have lasted a few years rather than decades.

Nevertheless, the primary objective of the Provos’ campaign — Brits Out! — remains unrealised. Despite that, and despite Sinn Féin’s preposterous efforts to recast the IRA as a civil rights organisation, McGuinness’ greatest achievement is that he, when he finally recognised the futility of violence, committed himself, body and soul, to peaceful means to build a peaceful, sustainable and inclusive society on the rubble of 30 years of inter-communal terrorism.

On the weekend that Donald Trump is sworn in as America’s president a career like McGuinness’ may seem a footnote. However, McGuinness retires leaving his community and society in a far better place than it was; he retires having shown the power of redemption and that it is possible to achieve great things by embracing fundamental, 360-degree change.

How much more soundly the world would sleep tonight if Trump had even a sliver of the courage, grace, selflessness and honesty of a Martin McGuinness. Let us hope he recovers and that he enjoys many happy years of retirement.

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