Martin McGuinness: Sinn Féin leaders help carry coffin home in Derry

Gerry Adams and Michelle O’Neill among mourners accompanying coffin through Derry, a city riven by sectarian division

As sleet began to fall on the funeral procession, an Irish tricolour at half-mast fluttered in the bitingly cold wind. Another was draped over Martin McGuinness’s coffin.

A look back at the life of Martin McGuinness – video obituary

The mourners were passing down William Street, not far from where McGuinness grew up in the republican Bogside district. Once, these streets were some of the most dangerous in Ireland, echoing to the sound of gunfire and explosions. Today, there was only the sound of applause, as hundreds of people watched Gerry Adams help carry his old friend’s coffin home.

Helping Adams shoulder the coffin of his longtime ally, with whom he steered the Irish republican movement from “armed struggle” to democratic politics, was Michelle O’Neill, the leader of Sinn Féin and potentially the next deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

Between them was Raymond McCartney, a Sinn Féin assemblyman and former hunger striker and member of the Provisional IRA. They walked past the iconic preserved gable wall known as “Free Derry Corner” – once a self-declared autonomous nationalist area and still featuring murals commemorating the events of the Troubles.

The funeral procession passes a mural in Bogside.
The funeral procession passes a mural in Bogside. Photograph: Paul Mcerlane/EPA

Derry is still bitterly divided. But in the Bogside where McGuinness was a teenager, he witnessed riots after civil rights marches, and then the slaughter of 14 civilians by British paratroopers in 1972. It was once the scene of many gun and bomb attacks he would have directed as Derry’s IRA commander. Today, the mood was different.

Some locals were preparing a traditional Irish wake in honour of the dead republican leader. At the Gasyard Centre, not far from the McGuinness family home in Westland Avenue, mountains of sandwiches were being prepared for the hundreds expected to pay their respects to his house.

Through tears, the centre manager, Linda McKinney, said the 66-year-old Sinn Féin peace process chief negotiator was “a gentleman” who “did so much for this area”.

John Kelly, whose brother Michael was shot dead in the Bloody Sunday massacre, echoed that sentiment in the newly opened Museum of Free Derry nearby. “I have known him for a long time,” he said. “Yes, he was a member of the IRA, but he turned that around and became a man of peace.

“You can’t take that from him. He was a great friend of the Bloody Sunday family over the years and was there for us from day one. It is a great loss to Derry and Ireland.”

Yet despite McGuinness’s journey from IRA leader and vocal defender of its violent campaign to a politician who made peace with many of his former enemies in unionism, Derry remains split along sectarian lines.

People watch as the coffin is carried to McGuinness’s home.
People watch as the coffin is carried to McGuinness’s home. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Beyond the city’s 17th-century walls is the last Ulster Protestant/loyalist enclave on the western bank of the Foyle river that bisects Derry. A mural on the Fountain estate reminds those living there that they are still surrounded. Echoing back to the 1688-89 blockade of then Protestant Derry by the forces of the Catholic King James II, it reads: “West Bank Loyalists Still Under Siege.”

That siege mentality was reflected in the fear of one woman in the Fountain who would speak about her feelings towards McGuinness only if she could remain anonymous. She recalled an IRA massacre in the same year as Bloody Sunday, when on 31 July 1972 three car bombs exploded in the centre of Claudy, a village outside the city in the County Derry countryside. The woman remembered one of the nine victims of the explosions, a child called Kathryn Eakin.

“Many people from this community have lost loved ones to the IRA,” she said. “Two friends of mine lost their little girl in the Claudy bomb. Her name was Kathryn. She was just eight years old.

“Both her parents died a few years ago and went to their graves without getting closure. The loss of their child destroyed them. A lot more people will never get closure now Martin McGuinness is dead, taking his secrets with him. They will find no comfort in his death.”

Others took a different view. A former Royal Ulster Constabulary officer, who served in Derry on and off between 1978 and 2003, acknowledged that McGuinness had moved from being the man who directed an organisation that tried to kill him several times to “grow into the role of statesman”.

Friends and family at the funeral procession.
Friends and family at the funeral procession. Photograph: Peter Morrison/AP

Peter Sheridan, a Catholic police officer, rose through the RUC’s ranks and ended up as an assistant chief constable. He had to move his family from two different homes during his time in Derry after intelligence reports indicated the IRA was poised to assassinate him.

He was injured in an IRA gun and bomb attack that left two RUC colleagues and a prison officer dead at Magee College in 1987, when McGuinness sat on the Provisionals’ ruling army council.

But 25 years later, Sheridan, retired from policing and working as chief executive for the Co-Operation Ireland cross-border peace group, found himself in the same line-up as McGuinness while they waited to greet the Queen at a charity event in Belfast.

“I had already accepted that Martin McGuinness had moved on,” he said. “When I witnessed his historic handshake with the Queen I realised it was as much about reaching out the hand to the unionist community as doing so with her.”

O’Neill and Adams speak to the media.
Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Adams speak to the media. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty


Henry McDonald

The GuardianTramp

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