They say that the best written words often come from the heart. At present, my heart is very sore with the sense of loss that myself and many others feel at the passing of Martin McGuinness this morning in his hometown of Derry. I actually feel intimidated attempting to write this piece – how could I do him justice? This is the man who was essential to the peace process in Northern Ireland – without him, it might not have even happened. He was many different things to different people, but to me, he epitomises the journey of Northern Ireland – from an IRA freedom fighter to a true statesman who worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation, his story is a complex one but it is one of extraordinary growth and progress.
As a child, Martin grew up in the impoverished Catholic community of the Bogside in Derry. The Nationalist community at that time often faced outright discrimination even though Derry was predominantly Catholic, local councils were ‘gerrymandered’ by Unionists to ensure their own majority. Although Martin had not grown-up in a Republican family, he had often described the sectarianism he faced as a youth as he was turned away from multiple car mechanic positions because he was a Catholic, which subsequently led to him becoming a butchers assistant. He would often describe how his outrage in seeing pictures in 1968 of Gerry Fit, the Catholic MP for West Belfast, with blood on his face after being hit by RUC batons during a civil rights march, and how it propelled him on to his path into politics.
As Gerry Adam’s had very aptly put it this morning, “Martin McGuinness never went to war, the war came to him. It came to his streets, it came to his city, it came to his community.”
There is no point in whitewashing history, it is true that Martin certainly had a questionable past to say at the very least. During his early 20’s he was second-in-command of the Provisional IRA in Derry, a position he held during the time of Bloody Sunday when 14 civilian protesters were killed by the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment. He was also arrested and convicted in Dublin in 1973 for being in a car that contained 250 pounds of explosives and nearly 5,000 rounds of ammunition. He refused to recognise the legitimacy of the court and was sentenced to six months imprisonment. During his trial he declared his membership to the Provisional IRA stating that…”We fought against the killing of our people…I am a member of Ógliagh na hÉireann and very, very proud of it.”
After another conviction for IRA membership in the Republic of Ireland, he had increasingly become a prominent member of Sinn Féin. He took part in indirect contact with British intelligence groups during the 1981 Hunger Strikes and was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont in 1982, representing Derry; however, in line with Sinn Féin policy then, he did not take his seat. In the same year, he along with Gerry Adams were banned from entering Great Britain under the ‘Prevention of Terrorism Act’.
However, his attitudes towards the armed-conflict and the means in which to achieve the Republican objective had changed dramatically – “…from the bullet to the ballot box”.
During the 1990s, he became Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process negotiation which led to the Good Friday Agreement. In 1997, he was elected MP for Mid-Ulster after the agreement was concluded and returned to the Northern Ireland Assembly to take up the ministerial position in the power-sharing executive, where he became Minister of Education. During his time in this position, I remember his visit to my school when I was nine years of age and the buzz it created. I also remember his speech about the unfairness of the 11-plus examination system and the need to bring forth a new era for all of the children in Northern Ireland.
The 2007 St. Andrews Agreement had seen the devolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive – where the four biggest parties, the DUP, Sinn Féin, UUP and SDLP, had indicated their choice of ministries within the Executive. On 8th May 2007, DUP’s Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were nominated as First Minister and Deputy First Minister. During their 2008 term together, the two bitter old foes had formed an unlikely friendship that got them dubbed as the ‘chuckle brothers’. It was one of that seemed genuine in its warmth and it led the precedence for the example of how two opposing ideological and political sides could come together to work for peace, and a better society for all.
After the retirement of Ian Paisley and the succession of Peter Robison as First Minister a year later, the same blossoming of friendship had not materialised between the two. However, amid all chaos that is Stormont, Martin McGuinness forever remained committed to the peace process and admiringly stretched out the hand of reconciliation to the Unionist community. On the 12th June 2012, Martin McGuinness had shook hands with Queen Elizabeth II – two individuals who are diametrically opposed to one another; however, it remains to be one of the most iconic moments of the Northern Ireland peace process. Who would have thought that the once hardened face of the IRA would shake hands with the Queen of England?! The pair had met many times thereafter and their meetings showed a willingness to erode old divisions.
Despite this though, after Arlene Foster had succeeded as First Minister, relations in Stormont had taken on a whole new level of sourness. Arlene Foster’s personal past and her hardline Unionist approach to power-sharing had made the role of Deputy First Minister difficult for Martin McGuinness. Cross-community gestures were often not reciprocated, and the mockery and disdain for all things ‘Irish’ was deeply felt by the Nationalist community. After Martin McGuinness had pulled the plug on the Executive over the ‘cash for ash’ RHI scandal, it was both a smart move on behalf of Sinn Féin in political maneuvering but also showed that they had their ear to the ground to the mood of the masses. I remember watching the press conference of Martin McGuinness that night after his resignation – he looked so old and frail but his words spoke volumns…”No return to the status-quo.”
In some twisted spin of fate, his last act in politics in Northern Ireland had given the Nationalist community one of the greatest gifts they’ve received in recent years. An election which saw them come out of their droves and put them on an equal footing with Unionists in Stormont.
Waking up this morning to the news of Martin’s passing, a tear immediately came to my eye. While Gerry Adams is the eccentric uncle to the Nationalist community, Martin McGuinness was certainly the father figure. He was one of the last political figures from that era that continues to define Northern Ireland to this day whether we like it or not. He was a staunch Irish Republican to the very end and his genuine willingness to work with others from different backgrounds does not diminish that fact. He took the ultimate journey in life, one filled with growth and progress, a mirrored reflection of Northern Ireland. He was renowned internationally, politicians from all walks of life had admiration for him, he was likeable, witty and had a way at making people feel at ease. He led by example and those within Stormont today could do well to learn lessons from his approach.
A once in a generation kind of man was our Martin. It will certainly be a while till we see the likes of him again.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.