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Newsmaker: Martin McGuinness

The slideshow published by the Belfast Telegraph on Monday, juxtaposing photographs from the life of Martin McGuinness before and after the Northern Ireland peace process, eloquently bookended the story of a man regarded by some as a hero and by others as a symbol of the mindless sectarian violence that killed more than 3,500 people and marred the lives of countless thousands more during 30 years of “The Troubles”.

One picture shows McGuinness wielding a handgun. It was taken in 1972, when he was a member of the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, the republican militant movement which traced its roots back to the 1916 rising against British rule in Ireland and which by the late 1960s had evolved into a terrorist organisation fighting to end the partition of Ireland, imposed by Britain in 1921 and to see Northern Ireland become part of the Republic in the south. The next, taken in 2007, shows him being sworn in as deputy first minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

On Monday McGuinness resigned after a decade in the post. To outsiders, the cause – a row over a failed government scheme to promote environmentally friendly heating – will seem a petty reason to sabotage the hard-won Assembly.

But as anyone familiar with the euphemistically named “Troubles” knows, no excuse for conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland has ever been too petty to be seized upon eagerly by one side or the other, still fighting battles that began 400 years ago.

Because of the arcane rules of Northern Ireland’s delicately balanced power-sharing arrangements, imposed by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, McGuinness’s resignation also forces the removal of the first minister, the Democratic Unionist Party’s Arlene Foster, and is almost certain to trigger an election.

But if the Belfast Telegraph’s coverage of McGuinness’s resignation had the air of an obituary, there may yet prove to be more to the gesture than mere political posturing. Rumours that McGuinness, 66, is battling medical problems first surfaced in December and, although on Monday he denied that his health had anything to do with his decision, he looked distinctly unwell. If so, not everyone will wish him a speedy recovery.

James Martin Pacelli McGuinness, named in part for Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, was born on May 23, 1950, into a large Catholic family in the Bogside, a working-class area of Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Neither his mother, Peggy, nor father, William, who worked as a foreman in an iron foundry, were politically active.

He left school at 15 and, despite widespread employment discrimination against Catholics, found work, first as a shop assistant and later as an apprentice butcher. But he was radicalised while still in his teens by what he saw when police attacked a civil rights march in Londonderry. It was clear, he later recalled, that “peaceful protest wasn’t going to change things”.

In 1969 he took part in the Battle of the Bogside, three days of rioting which ended with British soldiers being sent to Northern Ireland. McGuinness joined the IRA and, according to evidence he gave to the Bloody Sunday inquiry in 2001, by 1972 he was the organisation’s second-in-command in Londonderry.

In January that year British soldiers had killed 17 unarmed civilians in Londonderry during a protest march. The inquiry concluded that although on the day McGuinness had been “engaged in paramilitary activity” and had probably been armed, there was no evidence that he or the IRA had “provided … the soldiers with any justification for opening fire”.

The following year, however, McGuinness was convicted of terrorist offences in the Republic of Ireland after being arrested close to a car loaded with explosives. He was acquitted of charges relating to these, but sentenced to six months in prison after admitting membership of the IRA. He was arrested again in the Republic in February 1974, again charged with membership of the IRA, and this time sentenced to a year in prison.

This, McGuinness has always claimed, is when he ceased to be an active member of the IRA and instead put his energies into Sinn Féin, the republican movement’s political wing.

In 1982 he won a seat in a short-lived version of the Northern Ireland Assembly but, in keeping with prevailing Sinn Féin policy, declined to take it up. On December 6 that year Republican terrorists blew up a pub in County Derry, killing 11 soldiers and six civilians. Two days later McGuinness was banned from entering Great Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

McGuinness has always denied claims that, despite his apparent forsaking of violence for politics, he remained a leading figure in the IRA, variously as a member of the seven-person IRA Army Council as recently as 2005 and, at the time of the 1987 Enniskillen bomb, which killed 11 civilians, as head of the IRA’s northern command.

Regardless, he would become Sinn Féin’s lead negotiator with the British government in the Northern Ireland peace process, which began in 1994 and culminated in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Under the agreement, which brought together the British and Irish governments and eight political groups, including Sinn Féin, in the search for peace, paramilitary groups agreed to decommission their arms. The IRA announced the end of its campaign in 2005. Paramilitaries “loyal” to the British crown followed suit four years later. Britain agreed to “normalise” the policing of Northern Ireland, and to respect any future popular vote for it to break away from the United Kingdom.

In 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010, McGuinness was elected to Parliament in Westminster as the Sinn Féin MP for Mid Ulster, a seat he finally resigned in 2012 to concentrate on his job as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

For some, the evolution of McGuinness from IRA man to respected senior politician is welcome proof that even the most apparently intractable and bitter disputes can be resolved through reconciliation. Certainly, Northern Ireland today bears no resemblance to the nightmarish place it was during “The Troubles”.

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