Remembering Martin McGuinness: 1950 – 2017

Portrait of Martin McGuinness near his home in Derry, April 6, 1997. (Photo: Kelvin Boyes)

By Irish America Staff
March 21, 2017

Martin McGuinness, who was a military commander in the Irish Republican Army and later became an instrumental figure in the peace process and Sinn Féin politician, serving as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, has died.

Martin McGuinness (66) died early Tuesday morning, March 21, at Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital. He is survived by his wife, Bernie, and their four children, Fiachra, Emmet, Fionnuala and Grainne.

The former deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and Sinn Féin politician was diagnosed with a rare genetic heart disease in December and resigned amid health concerns as deputy first minister earlier this year, bringing about Northern Ireland elections, which saw Sinn Fein gaining seats in Stormont.

McGuinness, who was born in Derry, joined the IRA after the failure of civil rights marches to bring about change. It was 1968 and he was just 18. He quickly rose to become one of the leaders of the IRA and a member of the IRA’s Army Council. He believed at the time that there were no peaceful means of negotiating with the British, especially after Bloody Sunday in January 1972, when Civil rights marchers were gunned down in the streets of Derry by the British Army, but he went one to become Sinn Féin’s key negotiator in the peace process and one the chief architects of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of violence in the North when it was signed on April 19, 1998.

In 2007, McGuinness led Sinn Féin into power sharing with the Democratic Unionist Party and served as deputy first minister alongside Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson, and Arlene Foster. Tributes pour in across the political divide for McGuinness. His longtime political ally and close friend, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said: “Throughout his life Martin showed great determination, dignity and humility and it was no different during his short illness. He was a passionate republican who worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation and for the re-unification of his country.” Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said “Martin was a leader of immense stature,” calling him “A true patriot, a dedicated peacemaker, a respected statesman.”

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, whose name will forever be associated with the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement, said in a statement:

“As Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator, his integrity and willingness to engage in principled compromise were invaluable in reaching the Good Friday Agreement. In the years that followed, he played an even more important role in ensuring that the peace would last—personally overseeing the arms decommissioning, joining the new government as the first Education Minister, and later serving as Deputy First Minister, and doing it all with a sense of humor and fairness that inspired both his friends and former foes.

“My lasting memory of him will be the pride he took in his efforts to improve disadvantaged schools in Unionist and Protestant communities. He believed in a shared future, and refused to live in the past, a lesson all of us who remain should learn and live by. May he rest in peace.”

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster expressed her sympathies to McGuinness’s family as well as acknowledging how difficult his passing is for many across Northern Ireland and his contributions to the Northern Irish government. “I served in the government of Northern Ireland with Martin McGuinness for 10 years, in fact. I was just thinking this morning that he and I were the last two to have served continuously from 2007 up until dissolution just in January of this year. “I have to say I want to acknowledge his contribution to the governance of Northern Ireland here over those 10 years and I think it is important that that is reflected and that everything is balanced today.”

Tony Blair, former British prime minister, who played a significant part in the peace process, said, “for those of us able finally to bring about the Northern Ireland peace agreement, we know we could never have done it without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future.”

Queen Elizabeth is said to have sent a private message to McGuinness’s wife, according to RTÉ.

Ireland’s President Higgins talked about McGuinness’s leadership, saying, “The world of politics and the people across this island will miss the leadership he gave, shown most clearly during the difficult times of the peace process, and his commitment to the values of genuine democracy that he demonstrated in the development of the institutions in Northern Ireland.

“As President of Ireland, I wish to pay tribute to his immense contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, a contribution which has rightly been recognized across all shades of opinion.”

In the U.S., the House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley (D-NY) called McGuinness, “a giant for peace, ” saying in a statement, that McGuinness “will be forever remembered for his attempts to bring change to all of Ireland. I first met Martin more than 20 years ago during his first visit to the United States, though I knew of and admired him long before that visit. We became close friends and continued a relationship for years that was built on admiration and respect.

“Martin was one of the most extraordinary leaders I have ever met—never giving up on his belief in a united Ireland, while working to constructively bridge the divide with those who fought for a different future. His achievements, including the leadership shown during the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and his consistent, responsible support for devolution of power in the North, will be marked down in history as some of the most important efforts toward peace in modern history.

“I will forever treasure his warmth, friendship, and spirit. My thoughts and prayers are with Martin’s family and the people of Ireland during this time.”

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said of McGuinness: “He strove to make Northern Ireland a better place for everyone, regardless of background or tradition,” and that his death “represents a significant loss, not only to politics in Northern Ireland, but to the wider political landscape on this island and beyond.”

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Prime Minister Theresa May said that while she could not “condone” the path he took in the earlier part of his life, “Martin McGuinness ultimately played a defining role in leading the Republican movement away from violence. In doing so, he made an essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace.

“While we certainly didn’t always see eye-to-eye even in later years, as deputy First Minister for nearly a decade he was one of the pioneers of implementing cross community power sharing in Northern Ireland. He understood both its fragility and its precious significance and played a vital part in helping to find a way through many difficult moments.

“At the heart of it all was his profound optimism for the future of Northern Ireland—and I believe we should all hold fast to that optimism today.” ♦

Martin McGuinness, then vice-president of Sinn Féin, with son fly-fishing, photographed by David Spielman for Irish America in the fall of 1995. Spielman wrote at the time, "I had read that Martin McGuinness was an avid fisherman who pictures himself on a sea trout farm in the west of Ireland when the Troubles are all over. When I mentioned this to him he invited me to go fishing with him and he brought along his son. We spent several hours together fly-fishing the reservoir north of Derry."

Martin McGuinness, then vice-president of Sinn Féin, with son fly-fishing, photographed by David Spielman for Irish America in the fall of 1995. Spielman wrote at the time, “I had read that Martin McGuinness was an avid fisherman who pictures himself on a sea trout farm in the west of Ireland when the Troubles are all over. When I mentioned this to him he invited me to go fishing with him and he brought along his son. We spent several hours together fly-fishing the reservoir north of Derry.” Click to enlarge.

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