Martin McGuinness obituary

Sinn Féin politician and peace negotiator who went from being an IRA commander to serving for a decade as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland

Martin McGuinness, who has died aged 66 after suffering from a genetic disorder, was the former IRA commander who became Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process that led to the Good Friday agreement of 1998. Nine years later he entered power-sharing government with the Democratic Unionist Ian Paisley, and continued to serve as deputy first minister with Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster until resigning in January this year as a result of Foster’s refusal to stand down during an inquiry into a bungled energy scheme.

McGuinness was still a teenager when fate propelled him into violent politics in his native Derry. Pictures in 1968 of Gerry Fitt, the Catholic MP for West Belfast, splashed with blood after being hit by police batons as he led a civil rights march, shocked him into activism. He took to the streets just as the IRA, having been stood down after abortive Border campaigns in the 1950s, was re-arming. IRA leaders saw him as capable of providing organisation in Derry to mirror what Gerry Adams was developing in Belfast. Within months McGuinness was second in command of the IRA Derry Brigade, the position he still held on 30 January 1972, Bloody Sunday, when British parachute regiment soldiers shot dead 13 unarmed Catholic demonstrators.

In March 1972, the Conservative prime minister Edward Heath suspended the Northern Ireland government at Stormont and imposed direct rule. William Whitelaw, the Northern Ireland secretary, sought secret talks with the IRA. Its leaders, Seán Mac Stíofáin and Séamus Twomey, wanting the voice of young activists to be heard, picked McGuinness and Adams to join their six-strong delegation to fly to London. McGuinness and Adams already knew each other from the barricades, but that trip gave them an invaluable insight into the powerful British political establishment and cemented a lifelong friendship and political partnership that was strong enough for them to push through the peace settlement against often violent opposition within the republican community.

Martin McGuinness shaking hands with the Queen, with first minister Peter Robinson, centre, in Belfast in 2012
Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister shaking hands with the Queen, with first minister Peter Robinson, centre, in Belfast in 2012. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

The image of McGuinness, as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, standing side by side with a smiling Robinson, Paisley’s successor as Democratic Unionist party leader and first minister, and shaking the Queen’s hand during her visit to Belfast in 2012, vividly portrayed not only how far McGuinness himself had developed over the years, but how far Northern Ireland had moved from the violence of 1968. The two met on a number of subsequent occasions, the last coming in June 2016 at Hillsborough Castle, when the Queen unveiled a portrait of herself. After a 20-minute private meeting McGuinness said: “I am an unapologetic Irish republican and I value very much the contribution Queen Elizabeth has made to the peace process and to reconciliation.”

McGuinness’s unexpectedly warm relationship with Paisley in the year they shared the executive earned them the nickname “the Chuckle Brothers”. When Robinson succeeded Paisley in 2008, he promised a workmanlike but not warm relationship, which quickly had them dubbed “the Brothers Grimm” by Northern Ireland’s wits. Robinson and McGuinness worked together through several constitutional crises and made joint visits to the US in search of the inward investment both saw as key to maintaining peace. McGuinness said in 2013: “I am absolutely passionate about the peace process and passionate that we will under no circumstances see the situation slip back to where it was before … And I’m still passionate about working with unionist leaders.”

His task was made more difficult in January 2016 when Robinson, whose health had continued to be poor, retired and was succeeded by Foster, the legislative assembly member for the bitterly sectarian rural seat of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Their year of sharing office, through much of which McGuinness was increasingly unwell, did nothing to bring them closer.

A look back at the life of Martin McGuinness – video obituary. Photograph: The Chuckle Brothers: Northern Ireland’s new first minister Ian Paisley and deputy first minister Martin McGuinness after being sworn in at the Stormont parliament building, Belfast, in 2007.

Foster constantly referred to attacks by the IRA on her father, a Royal Ulster Constabulary reservist, and on her own school bus, and lacked the cosmopolitan experience of Paisley or Robinson before they became first minister. McGuinness persisted in working on his relationship with her, but to no avail.

Equally he sought reconciliation with victims of the violence from all sides, in 2013 accepting an invitation from Colin and Wendy Parry to speak at a peace lecture in Warrington 20 years after IRA bombs had killed their 12-year-old son, Tim, and another boy, three-year-old Johnathan Ball. “I thought it was important to go, to acknowledge the hurt and the pain,” he said.

From the earliest days after the 1998 Good Friday agreement, with the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, David Trimble, as first minister and Seamus Mallon of the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP), as deputy, when McGuinness was minister for education (1999-2002), his care, attention to detail and charm were respected on every side by all but a handful of diehards.

Martin McGuinness at an IRA press conference in Derry in 1972 to lay out terms for a truce and engagement with the British government.
Martin McGuinness at an IRA press conference in Derry in 1972 to lay out terms for a truce and engagement with the British government. Photograph: Leif Skoogfors/Getty Images

Oddly, public trust in him was strengthened by his admission in 2001 that he had been in the IRA, although at the time Paisley seized on it as proof that Sinn Féin was indeed Sinn Féin/IRA, as the DUP insisted, rather than two organisations, one political, the other the army, as Sinn Féin said. McGuinness told the Saville inquiry, which in 2010 finally established that the Bloody Sunday demonstrators were unarmed, that he had left the IRA in 1974, to be involved only in Sinn Féin. His admission of membership meant unionism could have a more straightforward relationship with him than with Adams, who denied ever being in the IRA.

McGuinness was born in the Bogside area of Derry, second of seven children of religious parents, William, a foundry-worker, and his wife, Peggy (nee Doherty). Unlike Adams, McGuinness did not come from a republican background, but grew up in a city where gerrymandering meant that Protestants always controlled the city council, even though Catholics were the majority population. Indeed, he said that when the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) began campaigning for equal rights, he saw no point in joining.

He failed his 11 plus, and on leaving the Christian Brothers’ technical college he was turned down for a job as a car mechanic because he was a Catholic. He accepted the inevitable and sought a job open to Catholics. The fact that he became a butcher’s assistant was used mockingly against him during the Troubles. The baton attack on Fitt “outraged” him into politics.

McGuinness continued to justify the “armed struggle” of those early days, saying that a “little boy” from the Catholic Bogside was no more culpable than a little black boy from Soweto. But in the subsequent half-century, his commitment was to words, not bullets. He said: “The lesson from the conflict here is the same for everywhere else. There are no military solutions – dialogue and diplomacy are the only guarantee of lasting peace.”

The cuddly, chess-playing and fly-fishing grandfather figure that he presented in later life was real – but so too was the guerrilla hard man of the 1970s, who neither smoked nor drank, partly because he was a member of the Catholic Pioneer temperance group, but also to minimise the pressures that might break him under interrogation. He had a toughness honed by years under surveillance. But the day before he was sworn in with Paisley in 2007, he said: “I’ve always believed the way to dilute sectarianism is by a combination of approaches. The really important one of all is for people of different political persuasions to work together in a positive and constructive fashion. I would hope that Ian Paisley and I have begun to show people that it is possible.”

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at the funeral of the reputed IRA commander Patrick Kelly, in 1987.
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at the funeral of the IRA commander Patrick Kelly, in 1987. Photograph: PA/PA Archive/PA Images

Edward Daly, the Catholic bishop of Derry, once said: “In many ways Martin McGuinness is an exemplary man. He is a good father, a good husband, a strong churchgoer, I believe him to be honest and upright in his personal conduct. No, my only quarrel with Martin was with the legitimacy and morality of using violence for political purposes.”

When McGuinness joined, the IRA was being re-armed in response to attacks on Catholic areas by Protestants angry at civil rights concessions. Four years later, when the IRA recruited him to join the delegation to London, the security force guidance to Whitelaw was that he and Adams were young men of intelligence. McGuinness was described as officer material with “strategic vision”.

Adams spent the 1970s as often in prison as out, but McGuinness largely avoided imprisonment. He was convicted twice in Dublin, the first time in 1973 in the special criminal court set up to deal with terrorist cases. He had been caught in a car containing 250lb of explosives and nearly 5,000 rounds of ammunition. Following the Sinn Féin policy of the time, he refused to recognise the court, and was given a six-month sentence: the policy was eventually changed to prevent senior figures serving prison terms.

In 1974, after his release, he married Bernie (Bernadette) Canning, with whom he had two sons and two daughters. Talking about those years, McGuinness said, “I worried my parents sick. And I would say I worried my wife sick also.” Often, the house was raided by the British army, “and in many cases I was taken off to interrogation centres in Belfast … It was traumatic for my children to see the British army en masse coming into our home.”

The IRA and its political front, Sinn Féin, had split in 1971 into the Official IRA and Sinn Féin, southern, rural-based and favouring constitutional politics, and the Provisionals, led by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh. In the late 1970s the street fighters of Northern Ireland moved to seize leadership. In 1978 Adams became a joint vice president, taking the position held by the Belfast Provisional leader Máire Drumm until her murder, in 1976, by loyalist gunmen who came in to her hospital ward disguised as doctors.

Ó Brádaigh was ousted in 1983, and Adams became president, with McGuinness his alter ego. They began to shift direction towards a dual use of constitutional and violent policies, the strategy of “the Armalite and ballot box”. Their policies, however, were urban, paying at least lip service to working-class, socialist politics.

A relative of Bloody Sunday victim Jackie Duddy with Martin McGuinness on the way to gain a preview of the Saville Report in 2010 in Derry.
A relative of Bloody Sunday victim Jackie Duddy with Martin McGuinness on the way to gain a preview of the Saville Report in 2010 in Derry. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Allegations of McGuinness’s continued involvement as a Provisional IRA commander and member of its army council continued to be made, and as consistently to be denied by McGuinness. He did, no doubt, have a close working and personal relationship with the IRA and its army council, and a moral and political responsibility for many IRA attacks. However, because his and Adams’ overwhelming aim was to pursue the peace process, they maintained the very careful separation that Mac Stíofáin and Twomey had decreed as politically expedient in 1972, before the Whitelaw talks. The separation also protected those involved from giving away too much under interrogation.

Adams was charged with IRA membership in 1978 and imprisoned for several months on remand before the Northern Ireland lord chief justice, Lord Lowry, threw the case out, criticising the Royal Ulster Constabulary for bringing charges with no evidence. Though McGuinness was convicted twice in Dublin through non-pleading, no charges were ever brought against him in Northern Ireland.

During the peace negotiations repeated allegations were made, and the talks almost broke down in 1999 when a listening device was discovered in the car that Adams and McGuinness were using. The Labour secretary of state, Mo Mowlam, apologised to them after she admitted that she had authorised the bugging device to try to discover who within the army council McGuinness and Adams were talking to.

Martin McGuinness interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, BBC2, in 2014

It was alleged of McGuinness that he had authorised the bombings on the same day in August 1979 that killed Lord Mountbatten, his grandson and other members of his family party in Sligo, and 18 British soldiers at Warrenpoint, County Down, as well as authorising subsequent IRA attacks. McGuinness dismissed the allegations as provocation by people hostile to the peace process. Adams was arrested and interviewed several times, but no charges were brought. McGuinness was not arrested.

They learnt the value of publicity early, wooing Irish, British and foreign journalists assiduously, using propaganda to raise money, particularly from the Irish diaspora in the US, and to influence US politicians and European diplomats who brought pressure to bear on the UK and Ireland governments to negotiate a settlement. McGuinness was an adept campaigner, running press conferences in Derry and giving visiting reporters, myself included, conducted tours of Free Derry Corner in the Bogside neighbourhood.

In the 1980s their focus became the fate of Republican prisoners. In the previous decade the British government had stopped interning suspects without trial under the Special Powers Act in favour of conviction through the non-jury Diplock courts. Those convicted, however, continued to have political status inside the Maze internment compounds until 1976, when all paramilitary violence was declared criminal, a policy continued by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Work also began on a new prison, with H-shaped cell blocks. The prisoners housed in those cells began the H-Block dirty protests, refusing to wash, and Sinn Féin outside instigated an international campaign for prisoners’ human rights.

The prisoners began a hunger strike in 1980, which resulted the following year in 10 deaths, the first that of Bobby Sands, who was elected to the Westminster parliament as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone as he lay dying. McGuinness and Adams, in contact throughout with Catholic church leaders, including the archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, and Daly in Derry, were instrumental both in the hunger strike and the political campaign. Sands’s death gave them an electoral power base from which they could risk a peace initiative.

In 1988 Adams accepted approaches from the SDLP leader John Hume. As ever, Adams did not move without McGuinness, who, as the peace talks progressed, became Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator.

McGuinness’s pivotal role in the discussions was widely acknowledged. Jonathan Powell, chief negotiator for Tony Blair as prime minister, noted McGuinness’s careful preparation. The Unionist politicians he was negotiating with included Trimble and Robinson, who on McGuinness’s resignation said: “We came from polar opposite backgrounds but built up a relationship based on doing the best we could for all our people. We shared the hardships of taking risks for progress and the joy of seeing so many improvements in the lives of our fellow citizens.”

After the Good Friday agreement, Ó Brádaigh led a splinter movement, the Continuity IRA, hostile to the peace process, while another splinter, the Real IRA, was responsible for the Omagh bombings in 1998, the worst attack of the Troubles. The ferocity of the dissident campaigns illustrates the extent to which McGuinness and Adams put themselves in danger during the peace process.

In their political partnership, Adams for decades was the public front, often depicted in Sinn Féin publicity shots walking slightly ahead. They took to wearing Aran sweaters, looking unthreateningly like folk singers. McGuinness was frequently, and wrongly, described as Adams’s deputy. They were a double act, working by consensus. Both were scathing of the inability of other parties to do the same. Their determination to win the support of their majority for each step of the political process meant at times that agreement was achieved with agonising slowness, but they argued that slowness produced a surer result.

Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams outside the House of Commons.
Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams outside the House of Commons. They were both Westminster MPs, but boycotted the institution. Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian

The way they gradually dismantled the Sinn Féin policy of boycotting all constitutional elections, standing eventually for Westminster, and the hair-splitting that went into deciding either to take seats or boycott them, depending on whether they recognised the institutions as legitimate, was Machiavellian. McGuinness was the abstentionist MP for Mid-Ulster from 1997 until 2013 (and came third as the Sinn Féin candidate in the Irish presidential election of 2011); Adams sat for West Belfast. Adams’s description of their first visit to the Commons, when they delighted in using MPs’ toilets and shocking backbenchers who walked in, shows their shared humour. One twist that outraged MPs came during the negotiations towards peace agreements in 2002, when McGuinness and Adams accepted offices inside the Houses of Parliament, even though they continued to boycott the Commons.

As the peace progress bedded in, McGuinness was increasingly the spokesman in television broadcasts, on one of which he and the Ulster Unionist party security spokesman Ken Maginnis, a former Ulster Defence Regiment officer, shared a platform. Maginnis, who called McGuinness “the godfather of godfathers”, said then that, if he could put his own memories of violence behind him, he could find him a “palatable companion”.

Others had much harder judgments, some of which McGuinness answered himself at a Dublin rally in October 2002, when peace talks stalled. “They would love the IRA to go back to war. I’m delighted that we have not fallen into this trap. I’m delighted that we have an organisation which understands the political dynamics [of the peace process] … It’s a … fool that believes that we will not succeed in achieving a sovereign independent Ireland.” To have persuaded Paisley to share a joke with him while he retained that commitment was a measure of McGuinness’s political skill.

Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, first and deputy first ministers, leaving 10 Downing Street, London, in October 2016.
Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, first and deputy first ministers of Northern Ireland, leaving 10 Downing Street, London, in October 2016. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

During 2016 the sectarian politics of a still divided Northern Ireland refractured over the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, which endangered the peace process by calling into question the Irish border, and because some unfulfilled commitments of the peace settlement caused increasing tension, not least as, with Foster at the helm, the DUP backed out of vital deals, many involving parity of culture between Protestants and Catholics. The impact of austerity cuts exacerbated the situation.

In the referendum, McGuinness, with the majority in Northern Ireland, supported remain, while Foster, with the DUP, voted to leave. McGuinness said if the UK left the EU it would return the reunification of Ireland, always his political long term end, to the top of the agenda. The tensions were exacerbated by the “cash for ash” scandal, over a payment to incentivise business to switch to green energy, which was uncapped and therefore cost half a billion pounds to the Stormont and British governments. Foster, who had overseen the deal as environment minister before becoming first minister, refused to stand down during an inquiry and McGuinness, with his health visibly frail, decided he could not continue.

In his resignation letter of 9 January, McGuinness spoke of his aspirations: “I have sought with all my energy and determination to serve all the people of the north and the island of Ireland by making the power-sharing government work. Throughout that time, I have worked with successive DUP first ministers and, while our parties are diametrically opposed ideologically and politically, I have always sought to exercise my responsibilities in good faith and to seek resolutions rather than recrimination.” He regretted that “the equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday agreement have never been fully embraced by the DUP.”

This, his final act as deputy first minister, was a typically dramatic move designed, as Sinn Féin had in the past, to crash through an impasse in an attempt to rescue the peace process. The situation threatened to cause the power-sharing executive to collapse, but on this occasion no compromise proved possible. Sinn Féin declined to nominate a replacement for McGuinness, and an Assembly election was triggered.

McGuinness was receiving treatment for a rare genetic disease, amyloidosis. Shortly after the election was called he announced that he was retiring from political life because he was too unwell to withstand the pressure it would put on him. When votes were cast at the beginning of March, Sinn Féin made major gains.

He is survived by Bernie and their children.

• James Martin Pacelli McGuinness, politician, born 23 May 1950; died 21 March 2017

• This article was amended on 23 March 2017. The non-jury Diplock courts did not operate under the Special Powers Act: that law had been used to intern suspects without trial before the Diplock courts were introduced.


Anne McHardy

The GuardianTramp

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