McGuinness was among the most paradoxical figures in Irish public life

Even those opposed to him had a grudging respect for his abilities as a negotiator and consensus builder

21st March, 2017
McGuinness was among the most paradoxical figures in Irish public life
Martin McGuinness with Ian Paisley in 2007 Pic: RollingNews.ie
Martin McGuinness with Ian Paisley in 2007 Pic: RollingNews.ie

By any measure Martin McGuinness was one of the most paradoxical figures in Irish public life.

At 6a.m. this morning, Sinn Féin announced that Northern Ireland’s former deputy first minister had died, aged 66. He had been suffering from a rare heart condition that forced his retirement from frontline politics in January.

McGuinness had been undergoing severe medical treatment for the condition in recent weeks. Those close to him expressed a heartfelt belief that with the worst of the treatment over he would be able to recover. But it was not to be. “It’s been a long night,” said one friend this morning.

McGuinness lived an extraordinary life. He was a man who spent decades fighting and decrying the British establishment and yet, somewhat bizarrely, indulged a not-so-secret pleasure of watching the game of cricket.

As a senior commander in the IRA, he oversaw a vicious bombing campaign in his native Derry in the 1970s and defended countless other atrocities carried out by the organisation. Yet, he turned peacemaker, forged friendships with unionists - including a remarkable rapport with Ian Paisley - and famously shook the hand of the Queen, later toasting her at Windsor Castle while wearing a white tie and tails.

Some will rightly never forgive him for what he did or what he has excused throughout his life. McGuinness claims to have left the IRA in 1974. In reality he was involved in the organisation long after that, including during its appalling campaign of violence in the North and mainland Britain in the 1980s.

But even those ideologically opposed to him and his methods had a grudging respect for his abilities as a negotiator and consensus builder. Unionists believed it was McGuinness, more than Gerry Adams, who could do a deal. His departure in January was lamented privately by the DUP who believed the chances of restarting power-sharing would be lessened by his absence.

Contrary to what some say, McGuinness never turned his back on the IRA but he decided that violence was no longer the means with which to pursue his ultimate aims. "My war is over,” McGuinness said in recent years. “My job as a political leader is to prevent that war and I feel very passionate about it."

While he shunned violence, he never stopped believing in or pursuing the goal of a united Ireland. He told me matter-of-factly in 2015 that he would one day be a member of the Dáil as a 32-county parliament.

Those close to McGuinness will mourn not just his passing but the fact that he will not fulfil that ambition given the tumultuous political events of the past year have brought it a step closer.

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