The death at 66 of Irish rebel, political leader, and peacemaker, Martin McGuinness, has produced an outpouring of tributes across the island of Ireland, and from across the political divide.
McGuinness, like thousands of young Irish men and women living in the Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and early 70s, was a product of the injustice that was the daily lived experience of Catholic and nationalist communities across the partitioned six county statelet. Denied equal rights by unionist controlled local authorities when it came to the allocation of housing, employment, and the right to vote, they were left in no doubt of their second class status in a state that had been cleaved from rest of Ireland in the wake of the Irish War of Independence between 1919-21, out of which the 26-country Irish Republic was born.
Martin McGuinness was born and grew up in Derry’s Bogside, a sprawling Catholic housing estate located outside the city’s walls. In the late 1960s, as with other working class Catholic communities across the province, the Bogside was one of the most poverty-stricken parts of Europe, where unemployment was rife and people lived in overcrowded, substandard housing conditions.
As with other young men growing up in such conditions, McGuinness became politically aware at a young age. He joined the Provisional IRA in response to the state-sanctioned sectarian violence that was unleashed against Catholics in Derry and throughout the province. This violence reached its nadir in response to the growth of a non-violent Irish Civil Rights Association, a mass protest movement led by young Catholics and Protestants that demanded equal rights for Catholics. Inspired by the black civil rights movement in the United States, it staged mass demonstrations across the Northern Ireland, attracting international attention in the process.
By the time of Bloody Sunday – when soldiers of the British Parachute Regiment shot 26 unarmed civil rights protesters in Derry, killing 14 – McGuinness had already risen to the position of senior commander within the local IRA. In his early twenties, his leadership qualities were already apparent in the course of a pitiless conflict that in the first half of the 1970s was at its most intense and violent. “I fought against the British Army on the streets of Derry and I don’t make any apology about that,” he said in a 2015 interview.
The conflict in Ireland, known as the Troubles, lasted over three decades. By the time it ended 3,600 people had been killed with up to 50,000 maimed and wounded, most of them civilians. It pitted the Provisional IRA and various smaller republican paramilitary organizations against British military forces and loyalist paramilitaries. The IRA and its republican supporters considered, and continue to consider, Britain to be illegally occupying a part of Ireland, while loyalists considers those six counties to be as British as any other part of the UK, refusing thereby to countenance the possibility of them being reunited with the rest of Ireland.
Though the polarization between both communities in the North remains impassioned and unbridgeable for many, politics in this tiny corner of Northwestern Europe is now conducted via the ballot box rather than the gun. Martin McGuinness played a central role in steering the Irish republican movement away from violence towards peace. His efforts, working closely with his close friend, comrade, and President of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA)
The agreement was finally reached after a long period of intense negotiations involving Sinn Fein, led by McGuinness and Adams, the British government, led by Tony Blair, and unionist. Signed four years after the IRA declared a cessation of violence in 1994, the GFA led to the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a devolved parliament in which Martin McGuinness served in the post of Deputy First Minister until forced to step down in January this year due to the rare genetic condition that ultimately was destined to take his life.
Unsurprisingly his passing has stirred strong emotions on both sides of the political divide, both in Ireland and from within the wider British political establishment. Some have decried him as an “unrepentant terrorist” and a man with blood on his hands, while his supporters and others recognize the courage he showed in standing up for his community, his people, and the brave steps he took in order to bring an end to a conflict that shaped him from a very young age.
Many within the republican movement itself criticized Martin McGuinnes at various points along the way of the peace process, especially when he chose to meet the Queen, a decision which some viewed it as a betrayal of republican principles and the ultimate goal of a united Ireland. But McGuinness was a man who by then had wholeheartedly committed himself to the path of reconciliation, and as such was willing to weather such criticism in the process of doing so.
This commitment was perhaps best exemplified by the close, if unlikely, friendship he forged with the late Reverend Ian Paisley, a unionist leader who in his own younger days was one of the most committed opponents of anti-Irish republicanism and the Catholic faith Ireland has ever produced. In the course of the peace process and the power sharing assembly in which they worked together, both men overcame their political differences to forge a deep bond of mutual trust and affection.
It was a bond so deep that upon McGuiness’ death, Ian Paisley’s son, Kyle, issued the following tribute on social media: “Look back with pleasure on the remarkable year he and my father spent in office together and the great good they did together. Will never forget his ongoing care for my father in his ill health.”
Martin McGuinness never shied away from his violent past or his role in the IRA’s armed struggle. On the contrary, he always maintained that he was proud of the part he played in what he and all republicans, when looking back, still view as having been a legitimate and just attempt to end the occupation of their country by a foreign government.
But as McGuinness said in 2002, “My war is over. My job as a political leader is to prevent war. My political project until the day I die is to build a better future for all of our people.”
Up until the day he died his every waking moment was dedicated to doing exactly that.