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Martin McGuinness helped bring peace to Northern Ireland – but it’s under threat

The peace the former IRA man helped achieve is under ever greater strain.

By Stephen Bush

Martin McGuinness has died aged 66 after months struggling with a rare heart condition. One of the titanic figures of the 20th century, his journey from paramilitary to peacemaker symbolised the wider journey of Britain and the world since 1945.  

While there are some who were never able to forgive or forget the role he played in the years of violence – Norman Tebbit today described the world as a “cleaner place” without McGuinness – for many others, he was the indispensable man as far as the path to peace in Northern Ireland was concerned.

Only McGuinness, with his long career in the IRA could have sold the transition from independence fought for at the barrel of the Armalite to independence pursued at the ballot box.

In sickness, he managed to finesse his retirement and the transition to a younger leadership north of the Irish border into Sinn Féin’s best performance at Stormont in its history and the worst showing for Irish Unionism for a century. He was helped by Arlene Foster’s maladroit handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive row and her less-than-stellar performance on the campaign trail, but it was still a remarkable feat of political skill.

Now the endurance of the peace he helped made will be decided by that new generation of politicians. There’s an acceptance on both sides of Northern Irish politics that the extreme likelihood is that there will be a resumption of direct rule from Westminster rather than a restoration of power-sharing. What neither side can agree on is whose fault that is and who will benefit from a period of direct rule in the long-term. Both that, and the lingering risk that Britain will leave the European Union either without a deal or with one that erects a hard border between the North and the Republic mean that the peace is in a more fragile position than you might think. 

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It’s worth noting that there is a certainty about the durability of peace in the Westminster press that you won’t find in his obituaries in the Belfast Telegraph or the Irish Times. Certainly, one reason why James Brokenshire is not feeling more pressure to bring both sides together is that here in London, most politicians don’t believe that a resumption of direct rule will risk the peace process. 

Are they right? Well, it’s a little early to say. But there’s no reason to believe that peace in Northern Ireland will be any more durable than the constant expansion of the European Union or the commitment of the United States to free trade and a rules-based global order, both once as symbolic of the latter half of the 20th Century as McGuinness’ transition from armed struggle to peace.  It may be that his late career is remembered not only as a high point for McGuinness personally but also for peace in Northern Ireland.