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Martin McGuinness funeral: At the last, it was the IRA man being buried, not the mere politician

Martin McGuinness's final journey was full of symbolism, from the tricolour-draped coffin to the funeral route, says Eilis O'Hanlon.

Ian Paisley explained that he was able to look past Martin McGuinness's past as an IRA commander because, as a fellow Christian, he was bound to consider it more important how a man ended his life than how he began it.

Cynics might say that Mr Paisley was thinking primarily of protecting the legacy of his father, who formed one half of the 'Chuckle Brothers' after retiring from his own lifetime's work of sowing division - and the cynics may well be right.

But let's take Mr Paisley at his word and accept that the ending of a man's life is more important than all the other acts he committed as a younger man.

If that's so, then surely there is no greater expression of what he stands for and how he wants to be remembered than his funeral?

Not least in Ireland, where funerals are embedded deeply into republican iconography as opportunities for defiance, reaffirmation.

The days may be largely gone when men in balaclavas fired shots over the coffins of their fallen comrades, but they're still packed full of symbolism and meaning, and never more so than with McGuinness, whose life encompassed the entire Troubles, through war and peace, with his hand strong in both phases.

His funeral was never going to be a wholly private affair; it was a public event, laced with public meaning. The fact alone that his coffin was wrapped in the tricolour showed what a political act this last ceremony was intended to be. McGuinness was being treated in death as a fallen soldier, not a mere politician.

He never resiled from his part in the IRA's savage war, a conflict that killed far more civilians than combatants.

His coffin was a visual allusion to a period when so many figuratively wrapped themselves in one flag or another at a huge loss to their own humanity.

It mattered too that the route his coffin took to St Columba's Church passed the memorial to the Battle of the Bogside, one of the first major acts of civil conflict fuelling the start of the Troubles and which acted as a training ground for the newly emergent Provisional IRA.

Here was McGuinness touching base again with where it all began.

Fr Michael Canny, in his homily, urged "that we ask God to forgive Martin of his human weakness", which might seem to take euphemism too far; his sins went a little beyond ordinary frailty.

But the priest had a delicate balancing act to perform, acknowledging McGuinness's work as a peacemaker without glorifying his terrorist past.

He stressed how important his Catholic faith was to him. Everyone who spoke about McGuinness told the same story.

Many outside Northern Ireland may struggle to understand how so much evil can be committed by those who claim to be devout.

Rest assured that it defeats us too. Fr Canny did not solve that mystery. It's too much to demand that he should.

He contented himself with saying that McGuinness would now "come face to face with the righteous judge who judges all fairly".

For those who don't have the comfort of faith and can only hope to see justice done on Earth or not at all, those must be hard words to hear; but Fr Canny eloquently expressed how the peace process was encapsulated in the mixed congregation paying its respects.

All groups were represented - Protestant clergy, including Presbyterian minister Rev David Latimer, a personal friend; the British and Irish Governments, who glued the Humpty Dumpty peace process together again each time it fell off the wall; international players such as Bill Clinton (left); most of all, the unionists who McGuinness regarded as implacable enemies for most of his life.

That DUP leader Arlene Foster rose to the occasion by attending the former IRA commander's funeral in Derry does much to counteract recent criticism that she's been less than wholehearted in her embrace of the cross-community work that's needed to bring about real peace.

There were elements to the funeral which any unionist would find uncomfortable. Mrs Foster handled them with self-effacing dignity, and the applause she received at the church was heartfelt and well deserved.

As a child she'd watched the IRA shoot her father, who mercifully survived. In her Belfast Telegraph column yesterday she wrote with due solemnity of the impact of IRA terrorism, about which she justifiably still feels abhorrence.

Nor can terrorism safely be consigned to history.

The Westminster attack bloodily proved that glorification of violence is as dangerous as it ever was. Many of those in the republican movement that McGuinness represented for decades still do not feel they did anything wrong, or at least that the wrong they did was not as outrageous as the wrongs done to them, so Foster's willingness to go to Derry was every bit as momentous as McGuinness's handshake with the Queen.

Clinton's speech was magisterially well-tuned too, though anyone who heard him speak on that magical night outside Belfast City Hall many years ago needs no reminder of what a charismatic showman he is.

If only the same praise could be extended to Gerry Adams, who had his hand practically glued to Clinton's back as he introduced him to the former Deputy First Minister's family in the church, before draping his arm around Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the same sickeningly proprietorial manner.

The Sinn Fein president's opportunism was an unwelcome reminder of how the republican movement exploits important public events, such as this funeral and last year's 1916 centenary, as retrospective endorsements of what poet Michael Longley called on Irish radio last week "our tawdry little civil war".

Adams didn't hide it during his graveside oration to his late friend, insisting he was "not a terrorist, he was a freedom fighter".

He even had the shameless hypocrisy to urge people in Northern Ireland to "learn to like one another, to be friends", as if he was not the very one who castigates unionists as "b*******".

What happened at St Columba's Church was for public consumption. The graveside oration was for the republican family. There were none of those infamous paramilitary trappings, but it was not without significance that this devoted family man was buried in the republican plot at the City Cemetery, and that there was a traditional guard of honour at his graveside.

It was made up of elected members of Sinn Fein rather than the volunteers of old, and that's progress, but these echoes are no accident.

At the last, the IRA was not giving up its claim on Martin McGuinness's memory simply because God now has custody of his soul.

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