Martin McGuinness: 1950-2017

21 March 2017 - by Gráinne Walsh

The death of Martin McGuinness signals the end of a life marked by extremes.

The range and tone of responses to the death of former deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness reflect the complexity of a journey travelled by the lifelong resident of Derry’s Bogside. They mirror the route travelled by all of us in this part of the world.

His death at the age of 66, from a rare genetic disease, has arrived far too quickly for family and friends, following the public confirmation that he was living with a condition diagnosed at the end of 2016.

It comes less than three weeks after an Assembly election induced by his resignation from the Executive Office in January. In that contest, Sinn Féin narrowed the DUP’s lead to a single seat and, along with the SDLP and ‘other’-designated parties, overturned the Assembly’s unionist majority.

Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator during the delicate talks that birthed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, McGuinness was elected to represent Mid Ulster at the newly formed Northern Ireland Assembly that same year.  He was at that time, of course, already the MP for the constituency, having won the seat in 1997. He would step down from his Westminster role in 2013, due to Sinn Féin’s policy on double jobbing, but stayed on as an MLA there until 2016. 

In the Assembly vote that May, McGuinness shifted his candidacy, successfully, to Foyle and the city that defined him. This was the first election he had fought in his native Derry since the early 1980s. It was also his last.

His reputation as a straight-talking politician was clearly aided by the testimony he gave to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, outlining his role in events of the day. This account, alongside his conviction by the Special Criminal Court for IRA membership and two jail sentences, released him from the kind of continual criticism faced by his long-time comrade and colleague, Gerry Adams. It afforded him the space to engage in the peace process with an authenticity that even the harshest of Sinn Féin critics in the Republic of Ireland found hard to challenge.

He was selected as Sinn Féin’s nominee for the Irish presidency in 2011. Placed third, McGuinness’s performance proved pivotal in securing the victory of Labour’s Michael D. Higgins, as well as making a significant contribution to the 'detoxification' of Sinn Féin in the eyes of the Republic's electorate.

Appointed Minister of Education in the first Northern Ireland Executive, his most notable act was to abolish the 11-plus transfer test. While the outworkings of this decision have yet to be fully resolved, it constituted a profoundly important gesture at the time and delivered on his party’s equality agenda.

His tenure as deputy First Minister began in the wake of the 2007 St. Andrew’s Agreement, a period that saw him occupy the office alongside three DUP First Ministers: Reverend Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster.

Known collectively as "the Chuckle Brothers", McGuinness and and Paisley  a one-time, bitter political rival  forged an unlikely friendship. The late DUP founder's two sons, Ian Jr and Kyle, warmly recalled that unexpected alliance today, with the former characterising McGuinness as "the necessary man in government to deliver sustainable and lasting peace." While McGuinness's relationship with Peter Robinson lacked the same level of clear public warmth, it nevertheless formed a central pillar in the workings of the devolved institutions.

Interestingly, the leadership experiences of Foster were beginning just as her counterpart's were coming to an end. McGuinness had indicated an intention to hand over the baton to a new generation of republican leaders sooner rather than later, but the timing and nature of his departure were not of his design.

The impending anniversary of the Fresh Start Agreement, without resolution of some of the most difficult legacy issues, Brexit, the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme and the withdrawal of funding for the Líofa Irish language programme, brought a perfect political storm to match McGuinness's health crisis.

The personal condolence letter that his family will receive from HM Queen Elizabeth II speaks to the risks and leadership McGuinness took for peace; the pain of those suffering as a result of IRA violence are just as indicative of the damage rendered by the 30-year conflict. 

His work to seal Derry’s place as the 2013 UK City of Culture produced one of the best examples of how he traversed the complexity of politics, language and tradition. "Some people call it Derry," he said. "Others call it Londonderry. But we all call it home."

And as for the future, the current political negotiations offer an opportunity for a new generation to take the risks needed in realising the uneasy, incomplete peace delivered by those who already walked the path.