Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams helps carry Martin McGuiness' coffin at the latter's funeral in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, March 2017.
Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters

The March 23 death of Martin McGuinness, the former deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, has led to much angst as various commentators have struggled to come to terms with his complicated and contradictory life as a former terrorist turned peacemaker and politician.

McGuinness died at the relatively young age of 66 from amyloidosis, a rare condition that affects the tissues and organs. He has been widely mourned; his funeral was the largest in Northern Ireland since those of the ten hunger strikers in 1981, eight of whom—including Bobby Sands, the most famous one—were McGuiness’s colleagues in the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Although 66 is young for a politician, it might be considered a good age for any IRA man to live to. On joining the paramilitary organization, which for three decades worked to drive the British out of Northern Ireland, volunteers were told they were most likely to end up in one of two places: Her Majesty’s Prison Maze or the Republican plot at Milltown cemetery in Belfast. That McGuinness ended in neither of those places but rather lived to shake hands with the Queen and share power amicably with the Reverend Ian Paisley, a Protestant leader and implacable opponent of the IRA, shows how remarkable his life was.

MAN OF WAR

Martin McGuinness leaves a complex legacy as a man of war and of peace. Born in 1950, he joined the IRA in 1970 and quickly became one of its most important members. Despite his long membership, however, McGuiness was jailed only once, in 1973 in the Republic of Ireland after being caught in possession of a 250-pound bomb. He was released from prison in November 1974 and immediately resumed his IRA activities, becoming the group’s chief of staff in 1978. McGuiness oversaw a massive upsurge in the IRA’s use of violence. On August 27, 1979, the IRA murdered Lord Mountbatten, the cousin of Queen Elizabeth, when they exploded a bomb on his yacht, killing two teenage boys in the same attack. On the same day, the group murdered 18 British soldiers at an ambush in Warrenpoint, County Down, in Northern Ireland. 

McGuinness was an active member of the IRA throughout the 1970s and 1980s. But by the mid-1980s, he was clearly looking for a political solution to the conflict. He left the IRA army council for a short while after the hunger strikes of 1981, and it was alleged that he suffered bouts of depression. He rejoined the army council in 1983 and sanctioned the Brighton bombing in 1984, which nearly killed British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Despite his claims that he didn’t have a sectarian bone in his body, during the time McGuiness was at its core—from 1970 to 1994—the IRA was a ruthless sectarian killing machine. From 1969, when “the Troubles” erupted in Northern Ireland, to 1998, when the guns finally fell silent with the Good Friday Agreement, the IRA was by a wide margin the most successful terrorist organization in Europe.

Later in life, McGuiness would claim—rather bizarrely—that he had left the IRA in 1974. During the 2011 Irish presidential campaign, when he ran as the candidate for Sinn Fein (formerly the political wing of the IRA), that claim was widely and rightly seen as preposterous. Along with Sinn Fein’s leader, Gerry Adams, McGuiness had represented the IRA in secret talks with the British government in 1972. No one, least of all McGuinness himself, could explain why, having joined the organization at age 19 and proudly announced his membership to a Dublin judge at age 22, he would have left it at age 24. Nor could anyone say how McGuinness, as a member of Sinn Fein from the early 1980s onward, was able to represent the IRA in the tortuous peace negotiations with the United Kingdom if he was not one of the group’s central members.

Neither was his change of heart ever fully convincing. McGuiness never denounced any IRA action, no matter how heinous. He accepted the murder of old-age pensioners in Enniskillen in 1987 and children in Warrington in 1993 as inevitable casualties of war. And although the IRA always claimed it never targeted civilians or acted in a sectarian manner, it was often indiscriminate in its killing and, in Orwellian fashion, took to calling its volunteers “peace activists.” McGuinness never indicated that he rejected this thinking.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, General Secretary Lucilita Breathnach, and Martin McGuiness at a press conference, March 1994.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, General Secretary Lucilita Breathnach, and Martin McGuiness at a press conference, March 1994.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

MAN OF PEACE

By 1989, IRA leaders, including McGuinness and Adams, knew that the group could not achieve its objectives by military means and had accepted that the north would remain part of the United Kingdom as long as the Protestant majority there wanted it to. At the same time, the British had come to believe that the IRA could not be entirely defeated either. Seeking to escape this stalemate, in 1993, the IRA sent a message to the British (purportedly from McGuinness, although he denied it): “The conflict is over but we need your advice on how to bring it to an end.”

But it was the Conservative Party government’s declaration in 1990 that it had no selfish, strategic, or economic interest in Northern Ireland that enabled the IRA to move ever so slowly to peace. The significance of this announcement lay in the fact that it allowed Sinn Fein to say to their community that there was a peaceful way to victory. This had a huge impact on republican thinking, as it gave Adams and McGuinness an opportunity to pursue a path of peace without betraying the sacrifice of their fellow IRA men and women who had lost their lives. The 1993 Downing Street Declaration, in which the British and Irish governments accepted the principle of self-determination for all the people of Ireland, north and south, also contributed to the momentum towards peace. 

McGuinness’s influence within the IRA made him uniquely suited to lead the transition. His mystique as a military commander, and his reputation in IRA circles as the hardest of hard men, was such that if he decided he could live without a united Ireland in his lifetime, then so could every other true republican. This led to McGuinness’s extraordinary transformation into a peacemaker and politician. Throughout the 1990s, he was central to Sinn Fein’s political strategy. In 1992, the party published its first political peace strategy, and in 1994, the IRA announced a ceasefire. That first ceasefire broke down two years later, but it was a prelude to a full ceasefire, in 1997.

The Good Friday Agreement, signed on April 10, 1998, was the culmination of this process. The agreement, which must surely be ranked as one of the world’s great peace resolution documents, established a power-sharing, devolved assembly and executive to be directly elected by Northern Ireland’s citizens. It laid the framework for peace, and also brought the IRA’s reign as modern Europe’s most ruthless terrorist organization to an end. McGuinness played perhaps the most central role of all in reaching the agreement, as he always had the power to continue the war.

THE MCGUINESS LEGACY

After the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, McGuinness proved himself to be a natural politician. For more than a decade, thanks to his skill at working with both unionists and republicans, he played a key role in making devolved government work in Northern Ireland, first as minister for education in the Northern Ireland Assembly from 1999 to 2002 and later as deputy first minister from 2007 until shortly before his death.

His death is a serious blow to power sharing in Northern Ireland. Although his ill health meant he was at some remove from politics in the past year, his ability to reach out to unionists does not come easily to others in Sinn Fein, particularly Adams. Yet his legacy in Northern Irish politics is a muscular and self-confident Sinn Fein that is increasingly bullish about both its short- and long-term prospects.

This is especially so given Sinn Fein’s recent success in the Northern Ireland assembly elections of March 2017, where the party won 28 percent of the vote, up nearly 4 percent from May 2016. The March elections were held after McGuinness resigned as deputy First Minister in January, over what he and Sinn Fein perceived to be arrogance and mismanagement by their partners in government, the Democratic Unionist Party. The election represented a seismic shift, in that unionist parties, for the first time since the partition of Ireland in 1921, failed to win a majority in a Northern Ireland election. Along with the uncertainty stemming from Brexit and what that will mean for the United Kingdom’s relationship with Scotland and Northern Ireland, a united Ireland seems more likely today than at any time since Irish independence.

Sinn Fein is also energized south of the border, in the Republic of Ireland. When McGuinness ran for president of Ireland in 2011, he became visibly upset when he was asked in a live television debate how he could claim to be a man of religion when he was “involved in the murder of so many people.” Citizens of the republic were evidently more immune to his charm that those in Northern Ireland. He nevertheless finished with a respectable 13 percent of the vote.

In Ireland’s 2016 general election, Sinn Fein, now running as an anti-austerity party, received just under 14 percent of the vote, up four points since 2011. Its association with violence is receding in popular memory, and with it the party’s chances of governing in Ireland, both north and south, is increasing. That is the legacy of Martin McGuinness. 

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