Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s former deputy first minister, has died aged 66, following a rare genetic heart illness.
He had been Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland’s devolved government for ten years when he stood down from office in January, triggering a snap election less than a year after the last one because he and his party could no longer work with DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster.
By contrast, Mr. McGuinness had worked closely with her predecessors the Reverend Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson both of whom were at one time his sworn political and personal enemies.
By the time of Ian Paisley’s death he and McGuinness were close family friends having been dubbed ‘the Chuckle Brothers’ because of the number of times they were seen in public, in office, laughing together.
When Paisley’s successor Peter Robinson suffered personal and political embarrassment McGuinness gave him the space to salvage both his party leadership and his political career.
James Martin Pacelli McGuinness was born into a large family living in Derry’s Bogside on 23 May 1950.
He attended Derry’s St Eugene’s Primary School, failed the 11-plus exam and went to the Christian Brothers technical college, known locally as Brow o’ the Hill.
He married Bernadette Canning in 1972 and the couple had four children. He enjoyed Gaelic football and hurling, both of which he had played in his younger days, and fly fishing and cricket.
He first came to the attention of people in Britain when in 1972 he was airlifted to London aged just 22 for talks with then Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath’s Northern Ireland Secretary Willie Whitelaw at Paul Channon’s house in Cheyne Walk in London. Gerry Adams was with him.
McGuinness had been identified by MI5 as genuine ‘officer material’ with a strong strategic vision.
It was his journey from violence to constitutional nationalism which enabled him to bring the Provisional movement with him.
He had been radicalised by the Troubles in the late 1960s and was an IRA commander, second in command, when British paratroops shot dead unarmed civil rights protestors in 1972.
He 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.
The Saville Inquiry found he had probably been armed with a sub-machine-gun on Bloody Sunday, but had not done anything that would have justified the soldiers opening fire.
When the Good Friday Agreement led to the creation of a devolved government at Stormont, he became education minister in the power sharing executive. One of his first acts was to abolish the 11-plus examination which he had failed many years before. It was with sincerity that he condemned a system which mapped out the future prospects of eleven years olds, deeming them successes or failures while still children.
By the time the DUP and Sinn Fein were persuaded to share power he rose to the rank of Deputy First Minister which, under the terms of power sharing, is not actually a deputy post but treated as equal.
He denounced those opposed to the peace process as “traitors to the island of Ireland”, renouncing violence with the words: “My war is over. My job as a political leader is to prevent that war and I feel very passionate about it.”
Tributes and public responses continue to roll in:
Statement by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny on the death of Martin McGuinness:
“I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Martin McGuinness today. His passing represents a significant loss, not only to politics in Northern Ireland but to the wider political landscape on this island and beyond.
Martin will always be remembered for the remarkable political journey that he undertook in his lifetime. Not only did Martin come to believe that peace must prevail, he committed himself to working tirelessly to that end.
Martin was one of the chief architects of the Good Friday Agreement and he worked resolutely in the years that followed it in pursuit of its full implementation. I got to know Martin well in recent years, including through our working together in the North South Ministerial Council. His commitment to securing enduring peace and prosperity for all of the people of Northern Ireland was unwavering throughout this time. He strove to make Northern Ireland a better place for everyone, regardless of background or tradition.
Above all, today is an especially sad day for Martin’s family – his wife Bernie, and his children – and for the people of Derry, who held a special place in Martin’s heart.
My deepest sympathies are with all of them at this sad and difficult time.”
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan T.D., said:
“It was with great sorrow I learnt of Martin’s passing. My deepest sympathies are with his wife Bernie and his family at this very sad time.
Martin and I come from very different political traditions. However, in his embrace of the politics of peace, he made an immense personal contribution to building and consolidating peace on this island. His own personal journey from militant republicanism to deputy First Minister in a power-sharing administration with unionism helped to map the road to the Good Friday Agreement and its vision of partnership and reconciliation.
In the past three years, I had the opportunity to work closely with Martin McGuinness and saw at first hand his many qualities. Martin’s generosity of spirit; his courageous leadership; and his ability to stretch himself in the pursuit of political stability inspired many others to do the same. He led with patience, with courtesy, and with a willingness to see and acknowledge the goodwill in others – even if those people were far removed from his own republican tradition.
As deputy First Minister, Martin displayed great courage and leadership, especially in undertaking gestures of respect and reconciliation which reached across community lines. He did so despite being exposed to political criticism and personal risk. This legacy of leadership will no doubt inspire the next generation of leaders in Northern Ireland.
Martin was deeply rooted in Derry, with great affection for its people, its places and its sporting traditions. But above all it was his family that was at the centre of Martin’s life. For Bernie, his children and grandchildren, Martin’s untimely loss is very difficult to bear and they are in all our thoughts at this very sad time.
Go raibh maith agat, a Mháirtín. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.”
1/2 Very sorry to hear about the passing of Martin McGuinness.Look back with pleasure on the remarkable year he and my father…
— Kyle Paisley (@JCKP1966) March 21, 2017
2/2 spent in office together and the great good they did together. Will never forget his ongoing care for my father in his ill health.
— Kyle Paisley (@JCKP1966) March 21, 2017
Tebbit not speaking for all, I value Martin McGuinness as inspiring example of peace and reconciliation. I lost my Dad in Brighton Bomb @GMB
— Jo Berry (@JoBerry9) March 21, 2017
A look back at the life of Martin McGuinness – video obituary https://t.co/qYIRe7rtTs
— The Guardian (@guardian) March 21, 2017
Arlene Foster said “Martin faced his illness with courage and, after stepping away from the glare of the public spotlight I sincerely hope he got the chance to enjoy the things he loved.”
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said this will be “a very challenging day for victims of the Troubles”.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said Mr McGuinness “played a defining role in leading the Republican movement away from violence”.
She added: “In doing so, he made an essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace.”