THE death of the former IRA chief-of-staff-turned-politician and peacebroker Martin McGuinness, aged 66, early on Tuesday morning, has been met with a mixture of tributes from the senior politicians who helped to broker the Good Friday Agreement, and hostile comments from families who were victims of the IRA campaign of terror which, over 30 years, led to almost 1800 deaths.
McGuinness was named as the chief of staff of the IRA during the height of the Troubles. Although he embraced peaceful means when it became clear that terrorism was in a no-win situation with the British Army — even going on to partner his arch enemy, the late Dr Ian Paisley, to form the first devolved administration at Stormont after the Good Friday Agreement — there are many in the Province, notably those who lost relatives in the 1987 Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing, who believe that they have been deprived of ever learning the truth of the part he played in it.
Embittered families who were victims of the bomb-and-bullet campaign, on learning of his death, said that “he has taken his secrets to the grave.” Many pointed out that he had never expressed remorse for his actions. The former MP Lord Tebbit, who narrowly escaped death in the 1984 Brighton bombing which left his wife, Margaret, paralysed, described him as a multi-murderer and a coward. Forgiveness, he said, required repentance.
The leader of the party Traditional Unionist Voice, Jim Allister, said that his thoughts were with the victims of the IRA who, unlike McGuinness, never reached the age of 66.
Politicians in both Britain and Ireland who worked alongside McGuinness to form the embryonic peace process which eventually led to a ceasefire, and the Good Friday Agreement, 20 years ago, including the former Prime Minister John Major, and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, while acknowledging his IRA past, emphasised the changed man who injected the same energy he once applied to terrorism, into the cause of peace and reconciliation. They pointed to his relationship with the leader of the DUP, Dr Paisley, with whom he developed a close relationship: they became known as “the chuckle brothers”.
Paisley’s widow, now Baroness Paisley, said that, while not minimising the harm done by paramilitaries on both sides, she recognised Damascene conversions, and noted the friendship he had shown Dr Paisley and the support he gave the Paisley family during her husband’s final illness.
”God is merciful,” she said. St Paul, a persecutor of Christianity, became a great Apostle. “If God can do that to one man, he can do it to any man or any woman or any young person, wherever they are.”
Ian Paisley Jnr said: “How someone ends their life is much more important than how they begin it.”
Perhaps the reaction of the Church of Ireland Primate, Dr Richard Clarke, summed up many people’s conflicting emotions in his statement. Expressing sympathy with the family and friends of the late Deputy First Minister, he said: “Martin McGuinness’s adult life was in so many ways one of two very distinct halves, and most of us have difficulty in connecting the two.
”That having been said, and it must be said, while recognising the hurt, fear, and misery brought into hundreds of other lives in the first part of that life, we should also convey proper appreciation of the immense statesmanlike qualities that Martin McGuinness brought into the political life of Northern Ireland in recent years. He displayed both real courage, and a genuine openness.”
The Roman Catholic Primate, Dr Eamon Martin, said: “I will remember Martin as someone who chose personally to leave behind the path of violence and to walk instead along the more challenging path of peace and reconciliation.”
Arlene Foster, as First Minister of the Assembly whose collapse was caused by McGuinness’s resignation (News, 13 January), said: “Martin faced his illness with courage, and, after stepping away from the glare of the public spotlight, I sincerely hope he got the chance to enjoy the things he loved.”