Martin McGuinness: paramilitary to peacemaker

Martin McGuinness giving press statement outside the Dáil


As Martin McGuinness reveals he will not stand for re-election to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont this March, it is impossible to deny that the man, who was once described as ‘Britain’s number one terrorist’, has been on a remarkable political journey. How did the former Deputy First Minister, who was previously deeply involved in violent republican activity, become such an integral figure in the peace process and one of Northern Ireland’s most influential politicians?

The Bogside in Londonderry in the 1950s was deeply divided: religiously, politically and socially. While the McGuinness’ were not a particularly republican family and seemingly uninterested in politics, Martin McGuinness’s upbringing in this socially and economically deprived area ultimately attracted him to republican activism after experiencing sectarianism first hand, and witnessing riots and murders on the streets of his home city. These factors produced the civil rights movement which quickly gained traction in the 1960s. McGuinness was drawn in – but he chose to follow the violent route and joined the Irish Republican Army. 

By 1972 he was second in command of the IRA in Derry at the time of the infamous Bloody Sunday killings when British soldiers shot and killed 13 unarmed civilians during a peaceful protest march against internment. One year later he claimed he was “very very proud” of his membership based on the fact that, incidents like these, required armed action to combat injustice. 

In an interview with the journalist Eamonn Mallie in 2015, McGuinness said, “I believed that in a situation where the community that I came from were being treated like second and third-class citizens that I had a responsibility to fight back against it. And I don’t apologise to anybody for having done that. I think it was the right thing to do.” While McGuinness has never admitted to personally killing anyone, he refuses to express regret for the leadership role he performed in the IRA: “I never talk about shooting anybody but I do acknowledge that I was a member of the IRA and, as a member of the IRA, I obviously engaged in fighting back against the British army.”

Any engagement in conflict after 1974 has been consistently denied by McGuinness. He rejects claims that he had any part to play in the murder of Lord Mountbatten in Sligo in 1979 – or that he had any involvement the 1987 Enniskillen bombing which killed 11 civilians. While he claims he left violent republicanism behind in the 1970s, others claim he was involved for a lot longer than that.

Whatever the truth about that, a gradual shift in McGuinness’s position throughout The Troubles resulted in him becoming the chief negotiator in peace talks for the political party Sinn Fein. These improved relations in the 1990s with the Social Democratic and Labour Party, as well as with political parties from ‘the other side’ – the Ulster Unionist Party and Democratic Unionist Party – led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. McGuinness had finally left conflict and fighting behind, renouncing it, in favour of advancing the republican movement by peaceful means.

Becoming a Sinn Fein MP in 1997 for Mid-Ulster is evidence of this significant process. Although he did not take his seat in the House of Commons based on principle, this, alongside his election to the Assembly, was the beginning of a successful political career which earned him respect. Actively engaging in democratic institutions cultivated a new image of the Derry man and he was appointed Minister of Education in the late 1990s. Despite some divisive policy decisions, Martin McGuinness rose up the ranks within Sinn Fein to eventually become Deputy First Minister at Stormont in 2007. 

Cooperation with Ian Paisley, the leader of the DUP who was First Minister in the Northern Ireland power sharing executive, was not thought to last long. However, after a frosty few months, McGuinness and his sworn political enemy became good friends and were even dubbed the ‘Chuckle brothers’. After Paisley passed away in 2014, McGuinness commented, “I developed a close working relationship with him which developed into a friendship, which despite our many differences lasted beyond his term in office.”

The Queen meets deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at private audience in Hillsborough Castle

In addition, McGuinness cannot be found wanting in his efforts to try to reach out to the wider unionist community. In 2012, his celebrated handshake with the Queen broke down barriers. He described it as having “momentous and historical significance”, later going on to explain at a speech in Westminster that it was, “a very pointed, deliberate and symbolic way of offering the hand of friendship to unionists through the person of Queen Elizabeth … I hope many will accept it in the same spirit it was offered.”

According to the DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr, in a recent television interview on BBC Northern Ireland, McGuinness’s contribution to putting an end to violence, despite his militant past, needed to be praised: “I can say thank you – honestly and humbly and recognise that the remarkable journey Martin McGuinness went on has not only saved lives, but has made the lives of countless people in Northern Ireland better because of the partnership government we worked on and put together.”

 Indeed, as he announced his resignation, Martin McGuinness again committed himself to improved relations in Northern Ireland: “I am very determined to be an ambassador for peace, unity and reconciliation…Reconciliation, I have always believed, is the next vital stage of the peace process.” A dynamic and dramatic development from chief antagonist, fighting the Establishment, to becoming part of the Establishment demanded compromise on all sides which McGuinness described in 2013 as “honourable”, going on to comment, “There is a route to Irish reunification, but it’s a route that can only be taken by purely peaceful and democratic means.”

As Martin McGuinness makes his exit from the political stage, historians can now begin to evaluate the real contribution of a man who began life as a prominent paramilitary and ended it as a peacemaker.

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