Former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has died, aged 66. Along with Ian Paisley, McGuinness was one of the two key figures in making the Northern Ireland Good Friday peace agreement work. The partnership of Paisley, a hard-line Unionist preacher and McGuinness, a former-IRA leader was unlikely but somehow worked in a relationship that was so friendly at the end the pair earned the nickname The Chuckle Brothers. These tribal warriors both surprised us as men of peace and brought the province back from the precipice of deadly conflict and made it boringly normal.
Born in Derry in 1950 McGuinness grew up in a city with a long history of sectarian violence. He was educated in Catholic schools but it was Unionists and the British that made him a republican not the Christian Brothers. Derry was predominately Catholic but ruled by Protestants in a gerrymander across provincial and local council boundaries. He spent school holidays on his grandmother’s small farm across the border in Co Donegal and the difference was palpable. “Even at a very young age, I could never understand why, when you went over that line, you were supposed to be in a different country,” he said in a 1998 interview. “Coming back to the North again was always like coming back under a big black cloud.” When aged 15, he was interviewed for a job in a Protestant-owned firm and he said it came down to two questions. “What’s your name? What school did you go to? And out the door.”
Derry Catholics suffered discrimination in other ways. They lived in crowded and inadequate housing and suffered massive unemployment. Decades of resentment blew up in the seminal rebellion year of 1968. A new breed of charismatic leaders like Bernadette Devlin and John Hume demanded change and universal civil rights. Derry was the focus of groups such as the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and the Derry Housing Action Committee aimed at fixing sectarian injustice. However many Protestants saw them as a front for republican organisations and many marches were banned. By the end of the decade tensions in Derry had broken out into violence with the 1969 Battle of the Bogside one of the key starting points of the Troubles. McGuinness, then 19, would later admit that Battle had hardened his republican attitudes.
McGuinness did get a job as an apprentice in a Catholic-owned butchery but butchery elsewhere convinced him his service lay elsewhere. By then he had joined the Provisional IRA though they were not very active in Derry. Most violence in the early days was between soldiers and stone-throwing youths. Matters escalated in 1971 when a British Army soldier was killed when his vehicle was petrol bombed in the Bogside. When two rioters were shot dead in July it was the cue for an IRA campaign in the city. The government introduced internment without trial in August 1971 directed almost exclusively against republicans and 21 people were killed in three days of rioting across Northern Ireland.
McGuinness worked his last day at the bacon counter on 8 August 1971. As internment began he went on the run rarely sleeping in the same bed twice. By 1972, he was second-in-command in the city as Bloody Sunday unfolded in the city. He always denied claims he was involved in bomb handling on the day and the 1990s Saville Inquiry found “he did not engage in any activity that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire”. Regardless “the Butcher’s Boy” gained notoriety while the Provos bombed Derry commercial centre methodically, with far less civilian casualties than Belfast.
McGuinness was never convicted of any offence in Northern Ireland but served time in the Republic. In 1973, he was convicted by the juryless Special Criminal Court, after being arrested near a car containing 110 kg of explosives and 5000 rounds of ammunition. Like many republicans, McGuinness refused to recognise the court but declared his membership of the Provisional IRA : ‘We have fought against the killing of our people… I am a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann and very, very proud of it”. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment at Port Laoise.
He claims to have left the IRA when he was released in 1974. He joined the IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein eventually becoming its best-known face after Belfast boss Gerry Adams. He was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont in 1982. He did not take his seat but was involved in irregular contact with the British government. As the war dragged on towards an unsatisfactory stalemate the Army used its intelligence unit to infiltrate the IRA in Northern Ireland but the Republicans continued to have success with its operations on the British mainland. The bomb with the largest economic impact was the 1992 attack on the Baltic exchange in the City of London. Three people died but the £800m damage bill eclipsing by £200m the entire damage of the conflict to date and raised the prospect of devastating the British economy. The British made coded messages to the IRA that if they were prepared to call off the violence, anything might be possible.
In 1997 McGuinness was elected to Westminster as the MP for Mid Ulster and in April the following year he was Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator in the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, ending years of violence. Following its agreement he was nominated by his party for minister for education in the power-sharing executive. Suspicions between republicans and unionists dogged the new body with many talks failing. However when McGuinness helped secure IRA arms decommissioning in 2005 a significant roadblock to peace was achieved. His success helped him lead negotiations during talks that paved the way for the 2007 St Andrew’s Agreement. It resulted in the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a new Northern Ireland Executive and Sinn Fein’s support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, courts and rule of law.
In May 2007 McGuinness became deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, with former Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley elected first minister. While the disagreements about the status of Northern Ireland never went away, the pair forged a remarkable partnership successfully bringing investment and business confidence back to the province and a sense of optimism. When Paisley died, McGuinness held back the tears as he said “Over a number of decades we were political opponents and held very different views on many, many issues but the one thing we were absolutely united on was the principle that our people were better able to govern themselves than any British government.” McGuinness, like Paisley, proved to be just as astute in peace as he was in war.