Martin McGuinness 1950-2017

Martin McGuinness 1950-2017
Martin McGuinness. Photo:

Martin McGuinness 1950-2017

The once feared, ruthless paramilitary who became a democratic politician

Thousands of mourners gathered at the funeral of the former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, who passed away last week aged 66.

McGuinness, who suffered from the rare genetic heart condition amyloidosis, had stepped down from his role in January over DUP leader and First Minster Arlene Foster’s role in the ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal.

Upon his resignation, he was lauded for his contribution to politics in Northern Ireland over the past 20 years and these sentiments were repeated when news of his death broke. Political leaders from around the world paid tribute to his role as a “peacemaker” and the part he played in securing the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams – his closest ally and good friend – spoke of McGuinness as both a proud Republican and a man ultimately devoted to cordiality.

“Martin, as we all know, was a very passionate Irish republican. He believed in our people – that people of this island should be free. He believed in reconciliation. He worked very, very hard at all of that,” he said.

The pair immediately sought to work with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair following his landslide victory in the 1997 election.


Clandestine discussions regarding the means to bring about the end of the IRA’s armed campaign led to a feeling of mutual respect between all parties.

Martin McGuinness 1950-2017
HRH The Queen meets deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Photo by Aaron McCracken/Harrisons

“Once he became the peacemaker, he became it wholeheartedly and with no shortage of determined opposition to those who wanted to carry on the war,” Blair said. “I will remember him therefore with immense gratitude for the part he played in the peace process, and with genuine affection for the man I came to know and admire for his contribution to peace.”

Another who was a key cog in the push towards the Good Friday Agreement was then-US President Bill Clinton. He gave a poignant eulogy at the funeral and described McGuinness as a man who, in believing in a shared future and refusing to live in the past, provided “a lesson all of us who remain should learn and live by”.

His thoughts were echoed by the family of the late former First Minister Rev Ian Paisley, who entered the first power-sharing agreement with McGuinness.

The two coined the nickname “the Chuckle Brothers” because of their positive, outwardly-cheery relationship and commentators would frequently use this as an example of how far McGuinness – and Northern Ireland – had come.

Martin McGuinness 1950-2017
Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, and First Minister, the Rev Ian Paisley, at the press conference at Stormont Pic. Albert Gonzalez/

Paisley’s son, Kyle, tweeted: “Very sorry to hear about the passing of Martin McGuinness. “Look back on the remarkable year he and my father spent in office and the great good they did together. Will never forget his ongoing care for my father in his ill health.”

While many chose to focus on his ability to go from former IRA commander to a pursuer of peace, there were those who could not forgive his prominent role in what they saw as a terrorist organisation. He was a prominent member of the Provisional IRA, acting as its second-in-command during Bloody Sunday 1972.

In 1973, he was arrested after being found with a car containing 113kg of explosives and nearly 5,000 rounds of ammunition and was convicted of IRA membership. And despite insisting that he left the organisation in 1974, he was banned, along with Adams, from entering Great Britain eight years later under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Saville Inquiry

McGuinness never sought to hide or deny his past as an IRA commander, which he admitted at the Saville Inquiry, but always denied having had any prior knowledge of the Enniskillen Remembrance Day massacre in 1987.

Martin McGuinness 1950-2017
Former US President Bill Clinton touches the coffin during the funeral of Northern Ireland’s former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness at St Columba’s Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. 23/3/2017. Photo credit Niall Carson/PA Wire/

The Inquiry found he had probably been armed with a submachine- gun on Bloody Sunday, but had not done anything that would have justified the soldiers opening fire. Ex-Conservative Cabinet Minister Norman Tebbit, whose wife was left permanently disabled by the IRA’s 1984 Brighton bombing, gave a scathing assessment of McGuinness’ career, saying the world was “sweeter” following his death.

“He was not only a multi-murderer, he was a coward,” he added. “He knew that the IRA were defeated because British intelligence had penetrated right the way up to the Army Council and that the end was coming.

“He then sought to save his own skin and he knew that it was likely he would be charged before long with several murders which he had personally committed and he decided that the only thing to do was to opt for peace.

“He claimed to be a Roman Catholic. I hope that his beliefs turn out to be true and he’ll be parked in a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of hell for the rest of eternity.”

And Stephen Gault, whose father, Samuel, died in the notorious Enniskillen attack, said he would remember McGuinness only as a terrorist.

Martin McGuinness 1950-2017

“If he had been repentant my thoughts might have been slightly different,” he said. “But he took to his grave proud that he served in the IRA.”

Whatever the individual opinions of McGuinness, there was no denying the poignancy of his funeral in Derry. Crowds as far as the eye could see lined the streets around St. Columba’s Long Tower Church as many came to say goodbye to a man they revered as a hero.

Foster was met with a sincere round of applause when she entered the church and her handshake with new Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill was seen as a fitting gesture. Presbyterian Rev David Latimer, who led the service, described him as the “IRA commander who became the mainstay of the peace process”, while Clinton urged the people of Northern Ireland to honour McGuinness by finishing the “work that is to be done” in their country.


• 23 May 1950: James Martin Pacelli McGuinness born into a large family in the Bogside, Derry. 1970: Working as a trainee butcher, McGuinness decides to abandon his apprenticeship and join the IRA.

• 30 January 1972: After rising through the ranks, he is second-in-command on Bloody Sunday as British soldiers shoot dead 13 unarmed civilians in Derry.

• 1974: McGuinness is convicted of IRA membership and declares his pride in such a fact.

• 1974: He marries Bernadette Canning in Co. Donegal – they go on to have four children.

• 1977: Following a deliberate move to rally against the old southern-based leadership of the IRA, McGuinness becomes the organisation’s first northern commander.

• 20 October 1982: McGuinness wins a seat in the Stormont elections, with Sinn Féin obtaining five in total, which they refuse to take.

• 1986: He maintains that “armed struggle” is essential to the cause and that the “cutting edge of the IRA” is the only thing which will bring freedom to Ireland.

• 1996: McGuinness is elected to the Northern Ireland Forum, representing Foyle.

• 10 April 1998: The Good Friday Agreement is signed, which creates political institutions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and between the Republic of Ireland and the UK.

• 8 May 2007: McGuinness is sworn as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland where he will serve alongside Rev Ian Paisley.

• 27 June 2012: He shakes hands with the Queen both privately and publicly and commends her on her role in the peace process.

• 9 January 2017: He resigns from his position as Deputy First Minister, stating an unworkable relationship with DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster.

• 21 March 2017: McGuinness passes away in Derry, aged 66.


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