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Martin McGuinness, Irish republican, dies aged 66

The former IRA commander turned Northern Ireland peace negotiator Martin McGuinness, has died at the age of 66.

McGuinness had been in declining health for months and decided not to stand for re-election in last month’s Northern Ireland election, citing his worsening illness.

Sinn Fein. the Irish republican party, said in a statement on Tuesday: “It is with deep regret and sadness that we have learnt of the death of our friend and comrade Martin McGuinness who passed away in Derry during the night.”

Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein President said: ““He was a passionate republican who worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation and for the re-unification of his country.”

More than any other personality in Northern Ireland’s recent history, McGuinness embodied the transformation from militant gunman to royal handshaking peacemaker. A committed republican he ended up administering British rule in a power sharing government in Belfast and even met and shook hands with the Queen.

Peter Hain, the former Labour Northern Ireland secretary, said on Tuesday: “He had the ability to go beyond his past as all important leaders do throughout history. He may have done things that we all object to deeply, that we all condemned deeply. That is true of a lot of leading politicians in troubled places like Northern Ireland”.

The one-time second-in-command of the Provisional IRA in Derry (also known as Londonderry) whom British officials say was responsible for some of the group’s bloodiest tactics, he went on to become the province’s deputy first minister and its most effective and thoughtful political leader as it emerged from three decades of strife to experience a fragile but enduring peace.

McGuinness achieved that transformation at least in part by being honest about his past. He acknowledged his membership of the IRA, though he disputed dates. For him, his elevation to political leadership in 2007 after the ending of the “Troubles” — the political and sectarian violence that began in the late 1960s and ended definitively with the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in 1998 — was not a betrayal of his republican ideals but a vindication of them.

In the process, McGuinness not only retained the loyalty of his republican base; he won the grudging respect of unionists. His affable personality, methodical mind and ability to see the big picture enabled him to develop a fruitful relationship with Ian Paisley, the bombastic preacher-politician who in the opposite direction was making his own journey from the extremes to the centre of Northern Irish politics. The two unlikely allies made power-sharing — the devolution settlement that now governs Northern Ireland — work.

© Getty

McGuinness’s acts of reconciliation, and his vehement denouncing of IRA splinter groups, were sincere and magnanimous. They also softened his public image, making him seem less ideologically strident than Gerry Adams, his Sinn Fein colleague. But they were also evidence of his serene certainty that every such gesture brought his ultimate goal a little closer. In 2012, after meeting Queen Elizabeth for the first time during a royal visit to Belfast, McGuinness was asked how the encounter went. “Great, yeah, it went well, I’m still a republican.”

James Martin Pacelli McGuinness was born into a large family living in the deprived Bogside area of Londonderry on 23 May 1950. His unusual third name was a tribute to Pope Pius XII.

he was one of seven children in a family with few republican connections. He left school at 15 without qualifications and worked as a butcher’s assistant. But by 1968 he had become a radicalised young republican as the civil rights movement emerged to highlight the plight of Catholics in a Northern Ireland riven by sectarianism and unionist gerrymandering.

He was the number two figure in the IRA in 1972 at the time of Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers killed 14 people at a Derry civil rights march. His leadership qualities soon made an impression, and not just with his comrades: he was one of a handful of IRA figures summoned to London in 1972 by William Whitelaw, the British government’s Northern Ireland secretary, during a brief IRA ceasefire for talks about how to contain the violence.

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness © PA

McGuinness was twice convicted of paramilitary activity in the Republic of Ireland, once for carrying explosives and once for IRA membership. Yet by the early 1980s, McGuinness and Mr Adams were leading a faction within Sinn Fein pushing for a political strategy as both a complement and a counterweight to the IRA’s “armed struggle”.

They persuaded Sinn Fein to abandon its total abstentionism and take its seats in the Irish parliament — the “Armalite and ballot paper” strategy. But the IRA’s continuing violence was increasingly counterproductive, from the Brighton hotel bombing in 1984 targeting Margaret Thatcher’s government to a bomb at a Remembrance Day ceremony in Enniskillen in 1987 that caused widespread outrage.

By 1996, a tentative peace process was emerging in Northern Ireland involving the governments in London and Dublin and, crucially, the Clinton administration in Washington. After another IRA ceasefire that year, Sinn Fein was invited into the talks that would lead a year later to the Good Friday Agreement. McGuinness, by then the abstentionist MP for Mid-Ulster in the Westminster parliament, was Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator.

Despite his affability, McGuinness could be prickly. He was also ferociously self-disciplined and somewhat ascetic, restricting himself to an annual glass of wine at Christmas. His hobby was fishing and he was a fan of Manchester United. In 1974 he married Bernadette Canning; she survives him along with their two daughters and two sons.

Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, November 1985 © Getty

He was once asked how he saw the Troubles in retrospect. His reply was uncompromising. “I do have a very great sense of regret that there was a conflict and that people lost their lives and that, you know, many were responsible for that — and a lot of them wear pinstripe suits in London today,” he said. “So I think if people want to apportion responsibility and blame for all of that, it is going to have to be apportioned and shared out all over the place.”

Vincent Boland

Via FT