Martin McGuinness: death of a statesman

Martin McGuinness, an eminent icon of Irish political life, has died in his native Derry. From the terraced streets of the Bogside to the salubrious surroundings of Stormont, the once undisputed bastion of Ulster unionism, Ciarán Galway reflects upon one man’s political odyssey.

At the age of 21 Martin McGuinness had risen to second in command of the Derry Brigade of the Provisional IRA. Aged 51 he had assumed the Education portfolio in the newly established Northern Ireland Executive. By 61 he entered his second consecutive Assembly term as deputy First Minister. It had been an unlikely trajectory, once deemed unthinkable.

McGuinness, like many of those whose lives were impacted upon or indeed shaped by the conflict, was immersed in a socio-economic context which predated his very existence and presented him with a series of choices. The path he walked was long and arduous.

Early years

An immensely proud citizen of Derry city, James Martin Pacelli McGuinness was born into the borderline slum poverty of the Bogside. His mother, a shirt factory worker and native of nearby Inishowen in neighbouring Donegal, and his father, an iron foundry worker, were not of aristocratic republican lineage. Instead, it was his early experience of marginalisation, faced by the community into which he was thrust, which initially aroused his political consciousness and influenced the decisions which would delineate his future.

McGuinness’ academic career was unremarkable. Having sat the 11-plus, he was “designated a failure” which subsequently precluded him from entry into the classrooms of the famed St Columb’s College. Leaving St Eugene’s Primary School, he then attended Brow of the Hill CBS.

At the age of 15, McGuinness ‘graduated’ into what he quipped was “University College Bogside” and, after a series of unskilled jobs, entered employment as a butcher’s assistant. Initially involved in and supportive of the civil rights movement, like many contemporaries McGuinness drifted from peaceful protest and civil disobedience and engaged in rioting. In 1969, he first came to the attention of the British security forces when he was fined £50 for directing abusive remarks towards soldiers during a protest on Derry’s Strand Road.



Later he joined the Official IRA, apparently unaware of the recent split, before swiftly transferring into the Provisional IRA. Upon uncovering his membership, Peggy McGuinness was aghast. Martin remarked: “My mother found, I think it was a black beret or something like that, in the house and it immediately traumatised her.” In a discussion with veteran reporter Eamonn Mallie, Peggy had also recounted her “shame and embarrassment” when recalling “the day her local priest arrived on the family doorstep at Elmwood Street to tell her Martin had been caught, having stolen acid from St Columb’s… to make acid bombs.”

Regardless, as a young and handsome man, fervently devoted to the republican movement, he would emerge as somewhat of an icon for the IRA in Derry.

In July 1972, he was one of a six-member senior republican delegation flown to London for clandestine negotiations with then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw. Exactly a decade later, Whitelaw would ban McGuinness (along with Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison) from entering Great Britain.

By the beginning of 1973, while refusing to recognise the Special Criminal Court in Dublin, he was first jailed on a number of charges relating to the Offences Against the State Act and soon after again for IRA membership. During the proceedings he stated: “We have fought against the killing of our people… I am a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann and very, very proud of it.” Following a second conviction in the South, McGuinness largely faded from media attention until the emergence of Sinn Féin as an electoral force. McGuinness insisted that he left the IRA in 1974 and had previously declared: “Reports that I am chief of staff of the IRA are untrue. But I regard them as a compliment.”

McGuinness was first elected to the 1982 Assembly to represent Derry, obtaining 8,207 votes. However, he, along with the other elected candidates from Sinn Féin and the SDLP, abstained from the Assembly. In 1996 he was elected to represent Foyle on the Northern Ireland Forum before unseating the DUP’s Willie McCrea as MP for Mid Ulster in 1997, securing over 20,000 votes in the process. Elected on an abstentionist policy, McGuinness would claim successive victories in the 2001, 2006 and 2010 Westminster elections.

Road to peace

By February 1991, the ‘Mountain Climber’, an alias of MI6 agent Michael Oatley, successfully reactivated communication with the republican movement through a meeting with McGuinness. Throughout the embryonic stages of the peace process, the ceasefires and the resulting negotiations of the early 1990s, McGuinness operated as Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator. He later commented: “The IRA stopped because people put a political analysis to them which in their judgement was a project worthy of support.”

After the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 he was simultaneously returned as an MLA for Mid Ulster. Within the new power sharing Executive, McGuinness was nominated by his party colleagues to the position of Education Minster and, following a report compiled by Queen’s University Belfast, took the decision to abandon academic selection for primary school children. During his tenure he prophetically remarked: “There was an attempt to whip up abuse from rejectionist unionists. This is natural and understandable given what we have all been through in the last 30 years, but people want to look to the future. There is a bright future ahead.”

However, the characterisation of McGuinness as an IRA hawk continued. In May 2001, during an Assembly debate moved by Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness was named under parliamentary privilege as a member of the IRA Army Council. While the motion of no confidence in the then Education Minister subsequently failed, to some degree it was this steely image and reputation which enabled him to retain the dedication of a significant majority of republicans into the trials of the peace process and beyond.

As the post-Good Friday era progressed, this frosty exterior gradually thawed and the veteran republican assumed a more genial public image more befitting of an elder statesman. Privately he was also an ardent family man, a keen fly fisherman, a religious devotee, a poet and a sporting enthusiast. Thus, as one unauthorised biography of Martin McGuinness suggests: “Many who spent their careers despising him for his role in the IRA now, almost against their will, find him a likeable and engaging individual.”

This was especially true of his former Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister colleague, Ian Paisley. Latterly, caricatured as ‘the chuckle brothers’, Ian Paisley and he formed the unlikeliest of positive relationships, both inside and outside OFMDFM. Something that Ian Paisley Junior would later attest to.

Whilst initially more aloof, the rapport between McGuinness and Paisley’s successor, Peter Robinson, improved and eventually yielded mutual respect. Ultimately, however, it was the stewardship of Arlene Foster that seemingly had eroded McGuinness’

Martin McGuinness. Credit: Bobbie Hanvey.

Recent years

Despite being unable to vote for himself, Martin McGuinness contested the 2011 Irish presidential election. Citing his northern background, he stated: “I was effectively saying, on behalf of nationalists and republicans in the North, that we’re as entitled to be here as anybody else.” Of the seven candidates, McGuinness came third with a total of 243,030 first preference votes. Predictably he performed well in the border regions of Louth, Cavan-Monaghan and his natural hinterland, both Donegal constituencies. Later he conceded: “We ended up with a good president [in Michael D Higgins].”

Disposed to symbolic gestures of peace, in 2012, McGuinness took the unprecedented step of shaking hands with Elizabeth II, both privately and in public, during an arts event held at Belfast’s Lyric theatre. The subsequent photography produced during the occasion has become an iconic illustration of the dramatic twists in McGuinness’ career. The former deputy First Minister has subsequently met the British Queen on several additional occasions throughout the course of his Executive role. He told Deaglán de Bréadún: “I want to be a deputy First Minister for everybody… I saw it as an opportunity to reach out the hand of friendship to the unionist people of the North.”

The erstwhile militant risked violent repercussions at the hands of anti-peace process republicans when, amid their continued campaign of violence, he denounced them as “traitors to the island of Ireland”. Subject to immense personal abuse, for his efforts he received multiple death threats in recent years, while his family home and ministerial car were also attacked. Regardless, he dedicated his final years to resolute and unwavering support for the peace he had helped to forge.

After a decade of service as deputy First Minister, McGuinness retired from political life and was succeeded as leader of Sinn Féin’s Stormont contingent by Michelle O’Neill. Shortly after, on 21 March 2017, Martin succumbed to illness. He is survived by his wife Bernie and their children Gráinne, Fionnuala, Fiachra and Emmet. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.




“As President of Ireland, I wish to pay tribute to his immense contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland – a contribution which has rightly been recognised across all shades of opinion.” Uachtarán na hÉireann, Michael D Higgins

“Reading and watching some of the media reports of his life and death in recent days one could be forgiven for believing that Martin, at some undefined point in his life, had a road to Damascus conversion; abandoned his republican principles, his former comrades in the IRA, and joined the political establishment. To suggest this is to miss the truth of his leadership and the essence of his humanity. There was not a bad Martin McGuinness or a good Martin McGuinness. There was simply a man, like every other decent man or woman, doing his best. Martin believed in freedom and equality.”  Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams

“It is precisely because of his past, because of his involvement with the IRA in the 70s and 80s because of his influence within those circles that he was able to play the role he played in bringing the republican movement towards using peaceful and democratic means and because of all of that I doubt we will ever see his like again.” Former First Minister, Arlene Foster

“While we certainly didn’t always see eye-to-eye even in later years, as deputy First Minister for nearly a decade he was one of the pioneers of implementing cross-community power sharing in Northern Ireland. At the heart of it all was his profound optimism for the future of Northern Ireland – and I believe we should all hold fast to that optimism today.” British Prime Minister, Theresa May

“I will remember Martin as someone who chose personally to leave behind the path of violence and to walk instead along the more challenging path of peace and reconciliation.  As a leader, he was courageous and took risks in order to bring others with him, convincing them that goals could be achieved by politics and persuasion. He channelled his many gifts into creating and sustaining the peace process of which he was one of the key architects.” Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, Eamon Martin

“Martin McGuinness’ adult life was in so many ways one of two very distinct halves, and most of us have great difficulty in connecting the two. That having been said (and it must be said), while recognising the hurt, fear and misery brought into hundreds of other lives in the first part of that life, we should also convey proper appreciation of the immense statesmanlike qualities that Martin McGuinness brought into the political life of Northern Ireland in recent years.” Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, The Most Revd Dr Richard Clarke

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