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Dissident threats to McGuinness’s life but Sinn Fein doggedly sticks to political strategy

The targeting of Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister helps to reinforce his modernising credentials.

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness speaks to the media beside party president Gerry Adams during a press conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sinn Fein has confirmed that dissident Irish republicans in Derry are actively targeting Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and threatening his life. Quoted in the Derry Journal, Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney said:

Over the weekend Martin McGuinness was informed by the PSNI that anti-peace process elements in the city are attempting to ‘stoke up young people to attack and take him out’.

He added:

It is claimed that they have been keeping watch on him and his movements. This threat is consistent with the recent paint bomb attack and the verbal attack on Martin’s wife Bernie outside the family home recently.

At one time, this would have been unthinkable. As the former second-in-command of the Derry brigade of the IRA during the height of the Troubles in the early 1970s, McGuinness’s reputation as Irish republicanism’s hard man was well earned. The writer Eamonn McCann once remarked that the IRA’s assiduous campaign of bombings in the city had left Derry looking as if it had been "bombed from the air".

From militant to peacemaker to statesman, McGuinness has also served as a proxy for Irish republicanism’s rank and file. If Martin thinks it’s the right thing to do, then so do they. Of course, where some see pragmatist others now see sell-out.

However this is not the first time McGuinness has been rumoured to be a target for assassination by former comrades. Wikileaks’s publication of US cables showed Gerry Adams was "particularly concerned" about threats to McGuinness when he met the US consul general Susan Elliott in Belfast back in April 2009.

The reference to this latest threat coming from young people is important. There is a now a generation that has grown up against a backdrop of relative peace in Northern Ireland. However with the number of unemployed 18-24 year-olds in the Foyle constituency (the nationalist part of Derry) currently standing at 1,650, there are no shortage of frustrated and alienated young people willing to lash out at Sinn Fein’s political direction.

Something made much easier by the enduring legacy of Irish republicanism’s many heroes. Indeed, next week begins the annual sequence of solemn commemorations for the ten young men who died on hunger strike in 1981 (starting with Bobby Sands’ on 5 May). To the dissidents, those who refused to bend their principles are the inspiration nowadays, not McGuinness. Despite these backyard problems, the Sinn Fein leadership retains a steely resolve to press ahead with a political settlement – which includes reaching out to unionists.

Here McGuinness’s role as a bridge-builder remains pivotal. In his speech to Sinn Fein’s ard fheis (annual conference) last week, he said: "I am so confident in my Irishness that I have no desire to chip away at the Britishness of my neighbours". So much so, that he urged republicans to "resist celebrating" Margaret Thatcher’s death, despite her being a hate figure of epic proportions to them.

Part of McGuinness’s approach has been his outspokenness when it comes to castigating republican dissidents (which is why he was under threat back in 2009), earning him grudging respect in some unionist quarters. Undeterred, he ridiculed dissidents as recently as last week, asking pointedly, "where were they, when there was a war?"

By being seen to walk the talk as far as reconciliation is concerned, McGuinness hopes to ease the way for Irish unity in the future and convince unionists to accept a referendum sometime after 2016. In terms of these latest threats, McGuinness will be irritated that dissidents are trying to usurp him in his own political backyard. But the upside is that it helps to reinforce his modernising credentials and shows unionists, who are invariably quick to gripe about their own ‘problems with the base,’ that few of them actually face the threat of execution for their troubles.

In his 1996 book Rebel Hearts, journalist Kevin Toolis records McGuiness’s nonchalance when asked about earlier threats to his life:

I am careful about my security but I don’t get up in the morning and say ‘I could be shot by the end of the day’. But I am aware that it could happen. It does not stop me doing the things that I want to do. (P.292)

Of course, back then these remarks were in the context of being a target of assassination by loyalist killers.

Not those from his own side.