End of the line for former Bogside IRA commander and “Chuckle Brother”
Tributes have been paid to the former Deputy Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, after he announced his retirement on health grounds.
Supporters and rivals alike were quick to recognise his contribution to both the history and future of politics in the Six Counties in a career which spanned 20 years.
Mr McGuinness, 66, was a prominent member of the Provisional IRA, acting as its second-in-command during Bloody Sunday 1972. He was arrested in 1973 after being found with a car containing 113kg of explosives and nearly 5,000 rounds of ammunition and was convicted of IRA membership.
Despite insisting that he left the IRA in 1974, he was banned, along with Gerry Adams, from entering Great Britain eight years later under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Mr McGuinness gradually became more and more involved with Sinn Féin, the Republican political party, and played an important role as its Chief Negotiator during the Good Friday Agreement proceedings.
He became Deputy First Minister in 2007 and enjoyed a surprisingly warm and affectionate relationship with the late DUP First Minister Ian Paisley, earning them the nickname ‘the Chuckle Brothers’. He held the position for almost ten years before resigning following Arlene Foster’s role in the ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal.
Last week he announced that he would not be standing in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections on 2 March due to ill health, effectively signalling his retirement. Mr Paisley’s son, Ian Paisley Jr, paid tribute to his father’s political partner by saying “thank you”.
“It is important that we, actually, do reflect on the fact that we would not be where we are in Northern Ireland, in terms of having stability, peace and the opportunity to rebuild our country, were it not for the work he did put in, especially with my father at the beginning of this long journey,” he said. “I can say thank you – honestly and humbly and recognise the remarkable journey Martin McGuinness went on has not only saved lives, but has made the lives of countless people in Northern Ireland better because of the partnership government we worked on and put together.”
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern also spoke warmly of Mr McGuinness, describing him as a “huge figure in moving from the Troubles to what is now a very peaceful time in Northern Ireland”.
“No doubt he was a hard man, if ten per cent of the stories are true, but as a negotiator, he believed in his cause, but he was also courteous, you could have some fun with him,” he told RTÉ.
“He was a person you could talk to on very many fronts. I hope to do that again, I hope he makes a full recovery, he’s a very good personality.
“We would talk about soccer – he’s a big Derry City soccer fan – and about the form of Derry’s GAA team. He’s also a keen fly fisherman, which surprised a lot of the British.”
Michelle O’Neill, the former Minister for Health in Northern Ireland, has replaced Mr McGuinness as the leader of Sinn Féin.
We recognise his work over many years securing a number of significant political agreements. He played a key role in moving the republican movement towards a position of using peaceful and democratic means. I want to send him best wishes for his retirement. We will all continue to work to make sure that the people of Northern Ireland are able to live freely and in peace.
I want to express my heartfelt thanks to Martin McGuinness. He and I first met over 45 years ago behind the barricades in Free Derry and we have been friends and comrades since that time. We were all shocked when we saw his appearance recently. Thank God he is looking a lot better since then and responding well to the treatment he is receiving. “However, he does need to take time out to get better for himself, for his family and for our struggle.
Martin McGuinness’s politics are very different from mine, but there is no escaping that he has been a major influence over the 10 years since the DUP decided to work with Sinn Féin in Stormont Castle. His decision to take up arms in the IRA and terrorise the people of Northern Ireland has left a legacy we are still struggling to come to terms with. That said, he is clearly unwell and I wish for him and his family what I would wish for myself and mine.
Martin was unstinting in his personal efforts to secure the stability of the powersharing institutions in Northern Ireland and to advance reconciliation between the unionist and nationalist communities. As the holder of a joint office, he fully recognised that his duty was to represent all of the people of Northern Ireland. Through word and deed, Martin sought to reach out to those who – for understandable reasons – would have regarded his past with fear, anger and suspicion.