Belfast Telegraph

McGuinness an able negotiator Sinn Fein could struggle to replace

Editor's Viewpoint

The decision by Martin McGuinness to withdraw for the forthcoming election and, essentially, public life, marks the end of what by any standards was a remarkable journey from active paramilitary to parliamentarian.

While he publicly stated that he left the IRA in 1974, unionists - and many nationalists - remained convinced that he stayed a highly influential member of the organisation for much longer during some of its bloodiest years.

There is no doubt that it was his unflinching support for Gerry Adams and the development of Sinn Fein's political project that persuaded most of the IRA membership that abandoning its terror campaign was the most realistic route to go down.

He had long been recognised - by friend and foe alike - as a very able negotiator and a real power within republicanism. And it was that reputation which enabled him to eventually take up the position of Deputy First Minister at Stormont.

There he was to form the scarcely credible relationship with the hard man of unionism, Ian Paisley, which earned them the nickname of the Chuckle Brothers. While Mr McGuinness was later to admit he had never spoken to the DUP leader before they met at Stormont, their ability to work together to bed down a very rocky devolved administration astounded observers and commentators alike.

But even more astonishing acts and words were to follow during his 10 years in the post. He branded dissident republicans who murdered two soldiers at Massereene and PSNI Constable Stephen Carroll as traitors to Ireland, the greatest insult that could be directed at anyone claiming to be a republican.

And he not only shook the hand of the Queen in Belfast but toasted her at Windsor Castle during an official visit. These were part of a choreography to keep the peace process on the road, yet they were important symbolic gestures from a man who, even in yesterday's statement, confirmed his commitment to republicanism and all that that organisation did in its pursuit of Irish unity.

Even his detractors - and there are many who cannot forget his past - admit that he used his office to reach out from his traditional powerbase towards unionists. Last year he went to the Somme - albeit before the official ceremonies to avoid controversy - to mark the centenary of that battle.

He managed a working relationship with Peter Robinson - at times it was frosty, on other occasions it thawed considerably - but his short-lived shared ministry with Arlene Foster showed up the irreconcilable fissures in their political outlooks. Perhaps that was inevitable, given their backgrounds.

While his farewell message may have noted his continuing support for power-sharing and desire to see it restored, it also contained some bitter language and a reiteration of republican grievances. Maybe that was a bit of electioneering, but it also betrayed a personal anger at a perceived lack of DUP generosity.

His recent decline into ill-health has been swift and quite shocking and has left Sinn Fein with the huge problem of how to replace him as a post-election negotiator capable to finding some way back to power-sharing. The ranks of the party on this side of the border are not bulging with the calibre of candidates required.

Mr McGuinness has made a huge impact on life here during his career - on both sides of the coin - and we wish him well in combating the health challenges he faces.

Belfast Telegraph

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