How Martin McGuiness went from paramilitary to peacemaker

As McGuiness leaves Stormont, it's time to reflect on the ex-IRA commander who made peace with Ian Paisley – and shook the hand of the Queen.

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One evening in 1979 John Kelly, a part-time policeman and farmer in County Fermanagh, Ireland, left his house to check his livestock. Minutes later, his wife and eight-year-old daughter heard shots. Kelly crawled into the kitchen, blood streaming from his head. They let off flares to alert the police, and Kelly survived.

The daughter grew up, married, became the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and, in January 2016, Northern Ireland’s First Minister. To ensure that the power-sharing government functioned, Arlene Foster had to work closely with Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister. This was a problem.

In 1986 McGuinness had delivered the funeral oration for Séamus McElwaine, an IRA gunman killed in an SAS ambush. He described McElwaine as “a brave, intelligent soldier . . . who gave up his youth to fight for the freedom of his country” and was “murdered by British terrorists”. Foster believes it was McElwaine who attempted to kill her father.

At the start of his decade as deputy first minister, McGuinness got on so well with Ian Paisley, the hardline DUP leader, that they were soon called “the Chuckle Brothers”. McGuinness had a professional, if cooler, relationship with Peter Robinson, Paisley’s successor. But there was no such rapport with Foster. On 9 January McGuinness resigned, bringing down the government.

The stated cause was Foster’s refusal to step aside during an inquiry into a botched clean energy programme that she had overseen as a trade minister. But McGuinness’s grievances went deeper than the “cash for ash” scandal. He complained about the arrogance and bigotry that Foster’s DUP had displayed towards nationalists. “I don’t actually remember the last time I ever heard a member of the DUP use the word ‘reconciliation’,” he said.

On 19 January McGuinness, aged 66, made news again. He announced that he was quitting politics because of ill-health. He is suffering from a potentially fatal disease called amyloidosis, which affects the body’s tissue and organs.

It was not how he would want to go. The DUP and Sinn Fein will probably remain the biggest parties after the 2 March Stormont Assembly elections, but Sinn Fein says it will not rejoin a power-sharing government without renegotiation. Months of wrangling loom. Michelle O’Neill, his successor as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland, will lack his authority, experience and acumen. His legacy – a decade of relative stability – is in jeopardy. Much as the Unionists abhor his violent past, they may come to regret his departure.

One of seven siblings, McGuinness was raised in the nationalist Bogside area of Derry, where he still lives. He failed his eleven-plus exam and left school at 15 to become a butcher’s assistant. Within a few years, he was the second-in-command of the IRA in Derry. Disciplined, ruthless and teetotal, he was so proficient that a British officer begrudgingly labelled him “excellent officer material”.

After Bloody Sunday in 1972, McGuinness was part of an IRA delegation flown secretly to London for talks. They proved fruitless. The following year, he was caught near a car full of explosives in the Republic of Ireland and briefly imprisoned. By the end of the 1970s, many considered him to be the IRA’s chief of staff. Yet if he was, he would have been responsible for such atrocities as the assassination or Lord Mountbatten.

Then came the republican hunger strikes of 1981. From his deathbed in the Maze Prison, Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election for Sinn Fein. McGuinness and other republican leaders began to see the virtue in pursuing a united Ireland through politics as well as violence – the “Armalite and ballot box” strategy. Theirs was a long and tortuous conversion, but it culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and developments unimaginable in the 1970s or 1980s.

McGuinness helped to persuade the IRA to disarm. He became education minister in a Stormont government (his most significant act was to abolish the eleven-plus). He made peace with Paisley, formerly one of his most implacable enemies, and gave him a handwritten poem by Seamus Heaney when he retired. “My war is over. My job as a political leader is to prevent that war and I feel very passionate about it,” he declared, though he never apologised for his IRA activities or abandoned his goal of a united Ireland.

Once banned from entering Britain, McGuinness has visited Downing Street, met Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama at the White House and, twice, has shaken hands with the Queen, the head of the state against which he once waged such a bloody war.

On the second occasion, at her 90th birthday celebrations in 2016, he asked how she was. “I’m still alive,” Elizabeth replied. Was she referring to her longevity, or to how McGuinness had once regarded the royal family as targets for assassination? Either way, the Queen – unlike some diehard Unionists – evidently felt that he had atoned for his past.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

This article appears in the 26 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West

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