I learned today of the death of Martin McGuinness and like many I pondered on the life of one who impacted many and influenced world events. According to Wikipedia: “James Martin Pacelli McGuinness (Irish: Séamus Máirtín Pacelli Mag Aonghusa; 23 May 1950 – 21 March 2017) was an Irish republican and Sinn Féin politician who was the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland from May 2007 to January 2017. A former Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader, McGuinness was the MP for Mid Ulster from 1997 until his resignation in 2013. Like all Sinn Féin MPs, McGuinness practised abstentionism in relation to the Westminster Parliament. Following the St Andrews Agreement and the Assembly election in 2007, as Sinn Féin’s Political Leader in the North, he became deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland on 8 May 2007, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Ian Paisley becoming First Minister. On 5 June 2008 he was re-appointed as deputy First Minister to serve alongside Peter Robinson, who succeeded Paisley as First Minister. McGuinness previously served as Minister of Education in the Northern Ireland Executive between 1999 and 2002. He was Sinn Féin’s candidate for President of Ireland in the 2011 election.”
I am of a generation that remembers vividly the “troubles” in Northern Ireland (going back to the 1970’s), when the IRA had pitted itself against the British government in a violent struggle to gain independence from the UK. I have to confess as far as the conflict was concerned I was very much anti IRA, who I looked on as murderers, and while I recognize they may have had legitimate issues with their British oppressors and given my own prejudice, ignorance and upbringing I probably failed to see this, for at the time I looked upon the IRA as pure evil and had little sympathy with those who supported them, and likely that remains the case. The two names most associated with that organization going back to those early days were Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, an IRA commander who was party to many of the atrocities inflicted on innocent people. Fast forwarding to the early 2000’s there was a concerted effort to negotiate a peace deal between the IRA and the British government, and at the heart of this was a power sharing agreement between the Protestant majority of Northern Ireland and the often Republican leaning Catholic minority.
Given the entrenched positions and the bitter animosity between the two sides coming up with a peaceful solution was always going to be a tall order. Step in Martin McGuinness, who made what might be deemed as a remarkable transformation from being a terrorist to becoming a statesman. On the “other side” was Ian Paisley, who was as anti-IRA and pure Protestant as you can get. While many others were involved in striking a deal, it was these two: McGuinness and Paisely, who struck up an amazing friendship (they later were referred to as “the Chuckle brothers” after a well know British comedy act) that were able translate laudable sentiments into practical reality. Many would agree it needed a Paisley and a McGuinness with their powerful personalities and huge followings to work a deal no other pairing could have achieved. Concerning McGuinness, what brought about this transformation from a man of war and violence to a man of peace and reconciliation is a matter for speculation, but undoubtedly we had two men with firm convictions and impeccable credentials for fighting for these and yet were able to put aside differences and foster trust. The result is the Peace deal, which holds fast to this day and may well be their greatest legacies.
As I listened and read tributes today concerning McGuinness, I realized this was a complex character with all sorts of strings to his bow, including a kind, cultured, sensitive side and his love for cricket and chess. While for some he paints a heroic figure as a freedom fighter, for others he remains an impenitent murderer that deserves to rot in hell. I suppose, I am somewhere in the middle conceding, but for McGuinness and his preparedness to work for peace, things will have turned out a lot differently and worse. He leaves a legacy few can match, and like us all will have to account for his actions before his Maker. I mourn his death and would want to reach out to his family and the families of his victims. I would like to think McGuinness came to see that killing such was not a price worth paying for freedom and resolved to seek a better way, and just maybe it was his way of finding redemption for his earlier terrorism.