Martin McGuiness' Legacy

War and Peace in Northern Ireland

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.


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

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