Martin McGuinness, genial and ruthless guerrilla leader turned statesman, now fighting serious illness, has been one of the most significant figures in the history of these islands over the past five decades.
From angry stone thrower during the Battle of the Bogside in 1969, through to IRA leader, visionary peacemaker, joint chief minister of Northern Ireland, McGuinness has played such a stellar role that his exit from the political stage will take some getting used to.
More seriously, his enforced departure leaves a serious gap that cannot be filled given his unprecedented experience, stature and rare qualities that are acknowledged across the political divide North and South.
Those qualities included having great charm – that can be a great political weapon too – and a disarming presence. I was once present at the wake of a relative of one of his political opponents and he appeared to light up the room.
McGuinness pursued peace and reconciliation with the same determination and ruthlessness that he deployed in maintaining what he once called “the cutting edge of the IRA”.
It has been said many times since his resignation as deputy First Minister that his journey from holding sway in the Provisional IRA Army Council to becoming joint leader of a Northern Ireland government within the UK and toasting Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II at a state banquet for President Higgins in Windsor Castle has been a remarkable one but it bears repeating.
McGuinness’s journey, which included forging not just a good working relationship but a warm personal friendship with the Rev. Ian Paisley, Northern Ireland’s most unlikely power-sharing First Minister in 2007-8, has been praised in many quarters in recent days, not least by Baroness Eileen Paisley, Ian Paisley’s widow and by her son, Ian Paisley Jnr, the DUP MP who publicly thanked him for his contribution to peace and for his role in transforming Northern Ireland, in a remarkable TV interview on the BBC’s The View.
He also wrote in The Sunday Business Post: “The measure of any person is not how they start a journey, but how they finish. Martin McGuinness has finished very differently from where he started out.”
Those sentiments are unlikely to be echoed by some of the loved ones of the IRA’s victims – and others – who believe McGuinness has blood on his hands, including relatives of slain members of the Republic’s security forces who repeatedly raised his past during his bid for the Irish presidency in 2011.
However, any examination of McGuinness’s career will reveal an exceptional figure who in terms of ability, courage, resolve, creativity and attractive personal qualities stands head and shoulders above most of the political class in these islands.
His ability was first recognised by the Provisional IRA when as barely a 22-year-old he was chosen to join a delegation that secretly met William Whitelaw, the first British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the home of a NIO Minster Paul Channon in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea in 1972.
The delegation which included a 25-year-old Gerry Adams was led by Seán Mac Stíofáin, the Provo Chief of Staff who demanded that the people of Ireland as a unit should decide the future of Ireland as a whole; the withdrawal of all British forces by January 1975; the end of internment and a general amnesty for all ‘political prisoners’ and those on the run.
Their demands were flatly rejected and the ‘bi-lateral truce’ which had made the meeting possible quickly broke down.
McGuinness returned to the Bogside to lead a bombing campaign that destroyed much of Derry city centre while ensuring that not a single civilian was killed.
Patrick Bishop and Eamonn Mallie in their 1987 book The Provisional IRA described McGuinness as “a natural leader…handsome and brave, and willing to take as many risks as the most active of his men”.
They quoted a Royal Marine major who had fought him describe him as “excellent officer material”.
Few believe his claim that he left the IRA for good in 1974. As a republican hard man with impeccable credentials in the eyes of IRA members on the ground, he played an important role in persuading the militants of the merits of the ‘Armalite and ballot box strategy’ which emerged post the hunger strikes in the early 1980s.
At the 1986 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis he was crucial in ensuring the success of the new Northern leadership’s radical move to take seats if elected to the Dáil by delivering a powerful speech in which he said that the policy shift would not undermine “armed struggle against British rule in the six counties”.
Above all McGuinness, as chief negotiator of Sinn Féin and later deputy First Minister, played an indispensable role in securing the IRA ceasefires that paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement without precipitating a calamitous split in the Republican movement that could have undone everything, and he subsequently strove tirelessly to make the power-sharing government work until he felt he had no alternative to pulling the plug on it.
His bold gestures in reconciliation included meeting Queen Elizabeth on several occasions and visiting the Somme and Flanders Fields.
However, he and Sinn Féin misjudged the mood in the Republic by boycotting the Queen’s historic State visit to Ireland in 2011.
McGuinness revealed last week that Arlene Foster turned down his suggestion that they would jointly attend both a Northern Ireland and a Republic of Ireland game at the Euros last summer. He ended up cheering for both Irish teams while the First Minister went on her own to a NI match.
He has also developed friendships across the community divide, most conspicuously a deep friendship with Derry Presbyterian minister, Rev. David Latimer, a great admirer.
I recall Bishop Edward Daly telling me over 30 years ago of his respect and regard for McGuinness the person while utterly opposing the IRA campaign.
It appears that a big part of why he came to believe that “my war is over” was not out of any moral qualms but because it became obvious to him and to his partner Gerry Adams – who was being worked on by John Hume –that the British and the IRA had reached a stalemate and that the IRA campaign was going nowhere and pointlessly increasing the death toll.
McGuinness, whose parents were deeply religious and attended daily Mass, has described himself as “a practising Catholic” while adding: “that is just my opinion, others may disagree”. He later claimed that his support for same-sex marriage and abortion in certain circumstances was compatible with his Catholicism when Archbishop Eamon Martin pointed out that any Catholic politician who supported abortion would not be “in communion with the Church”.
What is not in dispute is that his relationship with Ian Paisley was strengthened by their common Christianity (how Paisley mellowed!) and Ian Paisley Junior said last week that his father and McGuinness prayed regularly together and that his father prayed for McGuinness at home.
McGuinness’s role in taking enormous risks, including risking his life, in the cause of ending the bloodletting that the IRA and the others engaged in, and then working for the success of politics and for healing and reconciliation will be recognised as long as the history of this part of the world is written.
One can only join the countless people of all persuasions who are wishing Martin McGuinness a speedy recovery to good health.
Martin O’Brien is Northern Correspondent for The Irish Catholic.