Born 23 May, 1950 in Derry, Ireland, James Martin Pacelli McGuinness was one of the most influential and instrumental figures in Irish politics. From IRA leader to peace process innovator, he gained national and global respect as a man able to convince seemingly uncompromising foes into becoming allies for the common good.
McGuinness, at age 21, was second in command of the Derry Brigade of the Provisional IRA. In 1972, Derry suffered through the infamous “Bloody Sunday” massacre, during which the British 1st. Battalion, Parachute Regiment, gunned down 13 innocent civilians during a civil rights march. (Seven of those shot were teenagers; a fourteenth victim died months later as a result of his injuries during the event). The 1998 Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday found that although McGuinness was indeed an active IRA member, and in possession of a Thompson submachine gun, he “did not engage in any activity that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire.”
McGuinness was convicted in 1973 by the Republic of Ireland Special Criminal Court, after being arrested near a vehicle containing a large amount of ammunition and explosives. He refused to recognize the court, but stated, ”We have fought against the killing of our people…I am a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann and very, very proud of it.” He was sentenced to six months in prison.
In 1974, McGuinness left the IRA and chose to concentrate his efforts on a diplomatic solution to The Troubles, working with prominent Sinn Féin member Gerry Adams, among many others. Following many clandestine meetings with the British government and Unionist leaders, some marginally productive, others futile, McGuinness managed to help form what Brian Rowan of the Belfast Telegraph called “The most unexpected partnership in politics”. The partnership was with that of Rev. Ian Paisley, infamous for his anti-Catholic, anti-nationalist stance—not to mention his alleged collusion (via his DUP position) with sectarian violence and a nearly successful attempt on the life of Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams.
By this time, McGuinness had been elected Sinn Féin MP in 1997. (In concordance with Sinn Féin policy, he abstained from participation in Westminster Parliament.) He kept this position until his resignation in 2013. In the meantime, he helped accomplished what many considered impossible.
Working closely with Gerry Adams and other members of Sinn Féin, as well as David Trimble, Tony Blair, Ian Paisley, and other members of the Unionist community, McGuinness was able to help bring about the historic Good Friday Agreement of 1998. This admittedly incomplete recompense to the nationalist community nevertheless brought about a cease to the majority of organized warfare in the northern six counties and paved the way for a (still) precarious peace between loyalist and nationalist, Catholic and Protestant.
McGuinness served as the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, having served with Ian Paisley as First Minister until 2008. (He ran an unsuccessful campaign for president of the Republic in 2011). Considering the life struggles of McGuinness, largely due to British colonialism and Unionist bigotry, and Paisley’s nearly life-long bigotry towards Catholics, it is amazing that McGuinness came to call Paisley not just a partner in the peace process, but a friend. He was visibly distraught upon Paisley’s death, and extended condolences to not only his family but the loyalist community at large, paying respect to the stature of his former foe amongst a population that persecuted and opposed him his entire life.
McGuinness was instrumental in the beginnings of the the peace process in Ireland. However, he was far more than that. He travelled from Sri Lanka to Iraq and all points between to share his expertise in the sacrifice and diplomacy necessary for peace in the most contentious of circumstances. In one of his statements regarding the Irish peace process he stated, “Let everyone leave all their guns—British guns and Irish guns—outside the door.”
He also famously said, speaking of his political opponents, “In fact, I would defend to the death their right to express a different point of view.”
McGuinness resigned his post as Deputy First Minister in January 2017 after First Minister Arlene Foster refused to step aside to allow independent inquiries relating to the Renewable Heat Incentive, the so-called “Cash for Ash” scandal. (Foster’s predecessor Peter Robinson had twice stepped aside to allow independent inquiries on other matters; apparently Foster did not share his views on transparency or commitment to the power sharing government at Stormont.) This also marked McGuinness’s retirement from politics due to health concerns. Michelle O’ Neill was named as his replacement as the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland. His resignation vacated both his seat and Foster’s, forcing an election which took place 2 March 2017, resulting in Sinn Féin drawing to within one seat of the DUP’s majority, an unprecedented achievement.
With Ireland closer than ever to an end to partition and the challenge of Brexit looming ahead, McGuinness’s leadership will be sorely missed, but his legacy and example have armed the next generation of Irish Republicans to lead their country to the future that has been dreamed of for generations.
“The most important thing to say is that Sinn Féin isn’t going back to anything. We are a party on the move.” —Martin McGuinness