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Martin McGuinness: Political career scrutinised like no other - but there's still an element of his life shrouded in mystery

By Suzanne Breen

No political career in Northern Ireland has been as intriguing as Martin McGuinness's. Portrayed as a 'hawk' to Gerry Adams's 'dove', the former IRA leader was worshipped by republican grassroots, and loathed in equal measure by unionists.

But that was in the early days before McGuinness's remarkable journey from revolutionary republican to someone who made peace with the British Establishment.

Yesterday Prime Ministers and Presidents paid tribute to him. Footage of the former Deputy First Minister, statesmanlike shaking hands with the Queen, flashed across our screens.

And yet there is another image that won't go away. The rain-soaked body of IRA informer Frank Hegarty on a lonely border road, bound and with masking tape over his eyes. His family claimed McGuinness lured him out of hiding to be murdered.

Who could have foretold in those dark days of 1986 that the same man would later stand with a Chief Constable and a unionist leader to denounce other republicans continuing 'armed struggle' as "traitors to the island of Ireland"?

It was former Alliance deputy leader Seamus Close who perhaps most succinctly summarised Martin McGuinness's career yesterday when he described him as "the personification of war and peace".

There is no doubt that while his U-turn caused him to be despised by some traditional republicans, McGuinness has been lionised by hundreds of thousands of nationalists.

During the Assembly election campaign SDLP candidates reported an outpouring of sympathy for him on the doors, with even their voters asking: "How is Martin?"

At a healthy-looking 66, McGuinness was preparing to go to China with Arlene Foster just three months ago.

His death so swiftly after falling ill shows the fragility of human life, from which no one is immune. Those gloating let only themselves down.

While some unionists continue to see him as nothing other than a widow and orphan-maker, the attitude of others mellowed over the years.

His compassion and concern for Ian Paisley and his family softened many hearts.

"He's not that bad. There are a lot worse than Martin McGuinness," I heard numerous ordinary unionists say after he fell ill.

It wasn't always that way.

There was horror in the Protestant community when he became Education Minister in 1999.

And yet as he visited schools up and down the country, he won over many sceptics.

He charmed Paisley and previously hostile civil servants. "Call me Martin," he declared when other Cabinet colleagues insisted on "minister".

His political opponents found him a straightforward operator. He told the Sinn Fein ard fheis that unionists should be "loved and cherished".

While Gerry Adams was recorded talking about "breaking these b*******", nothing ever emerged to suggest any conflict between McGuinness's public and private positions.

He had an easy, engaging manner and a great sense of humour. Colleagues said he would "talk to a stray dog".

In one interview he told me how he loved to cook dinner, and when his daughters were teenagers they complained that he used too much garlic, causing problems when they met their boyfriends later.

He relaxed by watching the very English Last Of The Summer Wine, Match Of The Day and cricket. "I've supported Manchester United since I was eight," he said.

His greatest passion was fishing. "I like fishing alone in the dark. Some people are afraid of cows moving in fields or foxes beside the river, but I love it," he said.

It wasn't surprising that he clicked instantly with Ian Paisley.

Both were conservative family men who liked the simple things in life. "Although, I'm not quite as religious as Ian," he joked.

Both detested what Paisley called "the devil's buttermilk". McGuinness reckoned that nothing could beat "a mug of tea".

And yet old security force opponents, and many ex-IRA colleagues, agree that beneath the easy charm, history showed a duplicitous and ruthless man. On the face of it he was more honest about his past than Adams, admitting he was an IRA member.

In 1973, appearing before Dublin's Special Criminal Court after being arrested by gardai, he declared: "I'm a member of the Derry brigade of the IRA and I'm very, very proud of it."

But that admission of a military role meant the detail of his involvement wasn't forensically examined. Frank Hegarty never haunted his political life the way Jean McConville did Adams's.

Rose Hegarty described McGuinness as being on bended knee, promising her that her son would be safe if he returned from England. On the anniversary of Frank's death, Rose placed a newspaper notice denouncing "the Judas" who had betrayed him.

The man who condemned Massereene wasn't always so protective of human life. As Derry IRA commander he claimed civilian casualties were inevitable.

"We've always given ample warnings. Anybody hurt was hurt through their own fault: being too nosy, sticking around the place where the bomb was after they were told to get clear," he said. He authorised human bomb attacks.

Unlike other republicans at the coal-face of the war, McGuinness emerged relatively unscathed. There were no lengthy jail sentences - he served only 14 months in prison in the Republic on two separate IRA membership charges - and there were no serious attempts on his life.

Charges against him in Northern Ireland were controversially dropped several times in the mid-1970s. In 1983 supergrass Raymond Gilmour's offer to testify against him was refused by the authorities.

Tapes of his phone conversations with Frank Hegarty were never used by the security services. In 1993 detectives investigating McGuinness's IRA links questioned the decision not to prosecute him despite three witnesses willing to give evidence.

Ex-British intelligence officer Ian Hurst - who previously used the pseudonym Martin Ingram - said it was remarkable that someone who spent three decades at the top of the republican movement had never been convicted in Northern Ireland.

"This man has been so lucky, he should be buying Lottery tickets," Hurst quipped.

Hurst - who outed senior IRA man Freddie Scappaticci as British agent Stakeknife - claimed McGuinness was a long-standing British agent. McGuinness dismissed the allegation as "a load of hooey".

But yet much is unexplained about the Sinn Fein leader's journey from guns to government. His dialogue with the intelligence services, over several decades, remains shrouded in secrecy.

He may well have penned a memoir to be published after his death. And perhaps other voices in both the republican and security world, which have until now been silent, will emerge to shed light on the fascinating life and times of Martin McGuinness.

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