Belfast Telegraph

Martin McGuinness vows to keep up fight for peace as electoral career ends

Former Deputy First Minister says ‘very serious illness’ led him to bring forward his retirement date, and he voices disappointment at DUP

By Adrian Rutherford

Martin McGuinness says he wants to be an ambassador for peace, unity and reconciliation after quitting front line politics due to ill health.

The veteran republican will not contest the upcoming election, saying he was not physically able to fight the campaign.

He said it was time for a "new generation of republicans" to lead Sinn Fein into the election and beyond.

Mr McGuinness, who resigned as Deputy First Minister last week, said "a very serious illness" had led to him bringing forward his retirement.

The 66-year-old revealed he had intended to stand aside in May, on the 10th anniversary of going into government with Ian Paisley and the DUP.

But poor health means he will not contest the snap election, to be held on March 2.

Mr McGuinness said: "The question I asked myself was 'are you physically capable of fighting an intensive five or six-week election and doing it to my full abilities?'

"I rapidly came to the conclusion that I am not in any physical state to fight such a campaign. So I have taken the decision that I will not be a candidate in the upcoming election."

A visibly weak Mr McGuinness said the illness had taken its toll but that he was "determined to defeat it".

He said his successor as Deputy First Minister would be announced "next week". Health Minister Michelle O'Neill is favourite to succeed him.

Mr McGuinness added that although his electoral career is now at an end, his political career is not.

"I hopefully will overcome this illness through time. I am very determined to be an ambassador for peace, unity and reconciliation," he said.

"Reconciliation, I have always believed, is the next vital stage of the peace process.

"My record of reaching out, whether it be to Queen Elizabeth - and her record of reaching out to me on several occasions - my visits to the Somme, to Flanders field, have not been reciprocated by the DUP, and that is a particular disappointment to me."

A former IRA commander, Mr McGuinness became a key player in the peace process.

He was Sinn Fein's chief negotiator of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, secured IRA arms decommissioning in 2005 and shared power with the DUP.

He forged such a good working relationship with former DUP leader and First Minister Ian Paisley that they were dubbed the 'Chuckle Brothers'.

However, his relationship with Peter Robinson, and more recently Arlene Foster, was more strained.

He has been strongly critical of the DUP's handling of the Renewable Heating Initiative scandal, which could land taxpayers with a £490m bill over the next 20 years.

Mr McGuinness said the controversy had left him with "no other alternative" but to resign last Monday. He said Mrs Foster's refusal to step aside pending an interim report into the scheme was her "biggest mistake".

"God knows where it is all going to end," he added.

"But quite clearly at the heart of it is a very clear perception of not just incompetence, but allegations of corruption are flying all over the place. That was an intolerable situation for me to find myself in.

"As someone who has worked night and day over the course of 10 years to keep the institutions intact, and of course many conversations with both the British and Irish Government about the DUP, it was particularly disappointing having kept up the institutions for almost 10 years that I found myself with no other alternative but to resign. And of course that has led to an election."

Amid the row over the scheme, a range of other issues have surfaced to drive a further wedge between the DUP and Sinn Fein, including the Irish language.

Mr McGuinness said he felt disappointed by the DUP's "very clear antipathy towards the Irish language and all things Irish".

He referred to an incident during Euro 2016 when Sinn Fein had asked the DUP if Mrs Foster would accompany him to a Republic of Ireland match and a Northern Ireland match. He claimed the party refused.

"I wasn't asking her to go to a 1916 commemoration or anything to do with the anniversaries of commemorations, but they refused. I ended up going to the Northern Ireland match and the Republic match. Arlene went to the Northern Ireland match," he added.

"That certainly, coupled with other attitudes coming from the DUP, clearly shows that in relation to their willingness to respect that there are Irish people here in the north, whose allegiances, some to both teams, but probably most to the Republic. They weren't prepared to reach out. I find it all particularly disappointing."

Mr McGuinness added that his "passionate hope" in the aftermath of the elections is that the DUP will recognise "there is no going back to the status quo".

"There has to be a fundamental change of attitudes. I still think a big effort needs to be made to get an agreement which is solid and shows that people in the DUP and British Government are prepared to ensure there are no more allegations of financial scandals within the administration and there's an administration that is truly committed to the whole concept of equality and parity of esteem."

However, it is poor health which has ultimately forced Mr McGuinness out of front line politics. The first public indication he was unwell came in November when he withdrew from a business trip to China with Mrs Foster on medical advice. Mr McGuinness said he has been battling ill health for several months, but he hopes to make a recovery.

"On medical advice last year I was advised not to travel to China and in the aftermath of that I underwent a whole series of tests," he added. "As a result of those tests I have been diagnosed with a very serious illness which has taken a toll on me.

"But I am being cared for by wonderful doctors and nurses within our National Health Service and I am very determined to overcome this condition, but it is going to take time."

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