MARTIN McGUINNESS, who died yesterday after a short illness aged 66, was one of the most significant figures in recent Irish history.
Like so many others in that category, a disturbing moral ambiguity hangs over him.
Despite that, it must be recognised and celebrated that he was a pivotal figure in bringing the IRA’s terror campaign to an end.
That celebration must be tempered by the fact that, had he not been a dominant figure in the Provos’ bomb-and-bullet-and-kidnap campaigns — he was the IRA’s second-in-command in Derry at 21 — he would not have had the influence, or maybe the steel, needed to cross the Rubicon all paramilitaries must if they are to advance towards a stable, equitable society.
Such doubt is exacerbated by the fact that it is hard to believe McGuinness ever concluded that violence was always wrong, even if he did accept it would not deliver his objective — a united Ireland.
It is hard not to believe that the peace, the relative peace at least, this island enjoys is based on a tactical change rather than a moral awakening.
Those doubts are amplified by the fact that his colleague, Gerry Adams will, this year, begin his 34th year as Sinn Féin leader.
That McGuinness’ successor in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, was appointed rather than elected suggests the spirit of democracy has yet to intrude too inconveniently in how Northern nationalists order their affairs.
All of those doubts about McGuinness ring true, even if nearly every political party on this island has a violent past. McGuinness was not the first Irishman to cross the line dividing democracy and anti-state violence, but it may be his and his peers’ greatest legacy that he might be one of the last to have to do so.
By his actions, by his commitment to reconciliation and inclusivity, his generation might be the last to imagine that violence can be legitimate and act accordingly.
Resolving those doubts is made all the more difficult by the ugly fact that the community McGuinness came from was the victim of a sectarian administration that enthusiastically, and relentlessly, did all it could to ensure those communities remained as voiceless, second-class citizens.
When some of those who tried to change that by peaceful means were murdered by state agents, the Troubles became inevitable.
The see-no-evil response from Westminster, one that protected and facilitated bigotry and something we have come to call ethnic cleansing, remains a blight on modern British history on a par with any outrage committed in the name of empire.
McGuinness dedicated the last decades of his life to bridge-building, and formed many unlikely alliances.
That he could not build a working, trusting relationship with today’s DUP leadership must be a cause for great concern, as the only authority that might constrain Arlene Foster — the British government — is indifferent and otherwise engaged.
It is impossible to forget the young McGuinness, but it would be wrong not to recognise how a changed McGuinness remade this island for the better.
It is a tragedy, especially for McGuinness, that it took so very long for the terrorist to become a peacemaker.
It is a tragedy, too, that he did not live longer to reap the rewards of his spectacular career.
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