It’s been five years since the IRA man turned peacemaker died. We take a look at his legacy and how his death impacted NI politics
The last political act an ailing Martin McGuinness carried out was to announce his resignation as deputy First Minister, pulling the plug on Stormont in the wake of the RHI scandal.
That was on January 9, 2017. Then followed an announcement that he would not be standing for re-election that May. More than two months later, McGuinness would die in Altnagelvin Area Hospital at the age of 66, reportedly from the rare hereditary condition, amyloidosis on March 21.
The universe must surely have a wry sense of humour, given that as the fifth anniversary of the former IRA leader turned peacemaker is marked on Monday, the power-sharing institutions once again stand in metaphorical rubble.
The funeral of McGuinness was on par with a state funeral with 25,000 mourners and a host of dignitaries from across the globe offering their respects. Former US president Bill Clinton touched the coffin, draped in an Irish tricolour.
Arlene Foster, who was First Minister and DUP leader at the time, received spontaneous applause from those sitting inside Derry’s St Columba’s Church as she took her seat. One enduring image is a handshake shared between Mrs Foster and Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill — McGuinness’s successor.
On the first anniversary of his death, the later reflected on her “friend and leader” in a tribute piece for The Irish News — and clearly set out that she was determined to follow in McGuinness’s political footsteps.
“In his last public appeal, Martin urged people to choose hope over fear — to put equality and respect for all our people at the heart of the power-sharing institutions,” O’Neill wrote.
“As the Sinn Fein deputy leader I am focusing my energy on the same strategy and vision he had, and which we share.”
McGuinness, in his transformation from arms-wielding republican to elder statesman, had made overtures to reach out to the unionist community. And not just in words, but in symbolic — and historic — gestures. He toasted the Queen at a state banquet in Windsor Castle held in honour of Irish President Michael D Higgins in 2014. Two years earlier he had shaken the monarch’s hand during HRH’s two-day visit to Northern Ireland during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. At the time the pair had a private meeting.
McGuinness later revealed that he did not “shy away” from discussing the IRA assassination of the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten in Co Sligo in 1979, adding the handshake was a way of reaching out to unionists.
Of course, there was the other side of the late Derry man. The one, who by 1971, was one of the IRA’s leading organisers in his home town. In 1973 a special criminal court in the Republic sentenced him to six months in prison after he had been caught in a car containing large quantities of explosives and ammunition. Although the IRA kept secret the membership of its seven-person Army Council, few doubted that McGuinness was one of its most important members over the course of The Troubles.
He undoubtedly took secrets with him to his grave; denying the families of the more than 3,000 Troubles’ victims the frank disclosure of his IRA activities that he had promised.
On the first anniversary of McGuinness’s death Alex Kane revealed in this newspaper that in 2015 a leading DUP member said the Sinn Fein man admired Nelson Mandela as a role model and was pragmatic in terms of achieving a united Ireland.
And although his relationship with former DUP leader Peter Robinson was less friendly than his fellow ‘Chuckle brother’ the late Dr Ian Paisley, and McGuinness’s relationship with Arlene Foster even less so, the insider remarked: “We couldn’t have got this far without McGuinness fronting for Sinn Fein. Once he goes, unionism will have a problem.”
Four years later, a former DUP staff member agrees, but insists there’s currently a “crisis of credibility” displayed by both of Northern Ireland’s two biggest parties.
“I think undoubtedly McGuinness was someone who was much more prepared to keep things on the road, and much more prepared to do that than his successors have been,” they say.
“There’s zero doubt he held a lot more credibility in terms of that if he wanted to do something, it happened. Whereas now, they have to go through this long internal process. He wasn’t hampered or hamstrung the way Michelle O’Neill was… Now there’s a lot more control in party hierarchy.”
They add: “I think there’s a little of that in the DUP as well now. Peter Robinson would have made a decision, and no one would have challenged him. Arlene Foster never had that credibility. You can quite clearly see that Jeffrey Donaldson doesn’t have that credibility that Robinson had.”
Dr Tom Kelly, political commentator and former SDLP vice-chairperson, also insists the current crop of Sinn Fein leadership is “light” in comparison to the McGuinness tenure. His first encounter with McGuinness — at a television interview where the late Seamus Mallon, the SDLP’s deputy leader, was appearing with his political rival — was “extremely tense, tetchy and bad-tempered”.
“That day, I could only see McGuinness the former IRA Leader. He had an authoritarian, intolerant air. A man of remarkable self discipline but totally capable of a nasty quip. Here was a man used to giving orders, not someone tolerant of diverse views,” he recalls.
Over the years though, Kelly met McGuinness more often. At that stage the Sinn Fein man was deputy First Minister.
“On occasions which were formal or informal he was chatty and friendly. Always quick to offer an outreached hand. A friendly wink or a knowing nod would come my direction from the podium,” explains Kelly.
“At this stage Sinn Fein were definitely on the rise. The SDLP leadership and Hume acolytes were still in denial about the extent of the damage Sinn Fein was doing to the SDLP.”
Kelly adds: “McGuinness knew it. He could afford to be affable with the auld enemy. I was fortunate to share quite a few dinner tables with McGuinness. He was amazed to discover a family member of mine had been a republican leader he very much admired and that my grandfather was a War of Independence veteran — he joked that I must have been the black sheep of the family!”
He noted that McGuinness was “increasingly a man very comfortable in his own skin... so much so was perhaps even overly generous”.
“He was deferential to Ian Paisley to the extent that he looked like his consort — not his co-equal in Government. A retired Mallon quipped that McGuinness had a lot in common with Prince Philip now — always walking behind the Queen!”
Their last meeting was in the autumn of 2016 at the unveiling of a portrait of the Queen by Belfast artist Colin Davidson in London. Kelly was to find a political figure who wanted counsel.
“All the political parties were present. McGuinness looked tired and worn out. The tensions between Sinn Fein and the DUP were approaching boiling point,” he recalls.
“McGuinness sought me out and actually remarked that we had never had a photograph together. This was true.
“He called over the official photographer and asked him to take a snap. It felt like an ending somehow — though I was unaware how ill he was.
“More poignantly, he took me aside to tell me just how much pressure he was coming under from within his own organisation as a result of his seemingly tolerant approach to DUP antics over equality legislation and the Irish Language.
“He asked if I could convey this message to the DUP.”
He continues: “McGuinness wanted to me emphasise this was not a tactic or a bluff — but the Executive could collapse. I did what he asked but to no avail. That was December 2016. By January the wheels had come off the wagon. A frail McGuinness pulled the plug on the Executive. Within months he was dead. A hard man of politics who almost seemed invincible brought low by ill health.”
Political commentator Jon Tonge, meanwhile, views the ending of the McGuinness-Robinson partnership as the start of a protracted period of instability for the Assembly.
“McGuinness remained a hate figure for many unionists but he was also a pragmatist who made a very important contribution to the solitary period of successful and relatively stable devolved government, from 2007-16,” he reflects.
“His cordial relationship with Paisley and highly functional work with Peter Robinson was transformative for a few years. That policing and justice could be devolved, given Northern Ireland’s history on such matters, was remarkable. Robinson’s departure saw a rapid deterioration in devolved government. Had he and McGuinness been around longer it might have held. Certainly the 2017 collapse might have been avoided.”
Reflecting on McGuinness’s legacy, Kelly describes the Sinn Fein leader as an “unrepentant republican but one who you felt had it not been for the Troubles could had led a very different life. That was not to be”.
He stresses: “McGuinness was in the leadership IRA and therefore bears much responsibility for the human tragedies which occurred across Northern Ireland. That’s a heavy burden to carry when fellow Derry man John Hume successfully provided an alternative political and peaceful narrative which Sinn Fein ultimately adopted.
“Once on the peace train, McGuinness never deviated. Unionists begrudgingly came to accept his generosity. His affability seemed genuine. He could be self deprecating in a way Adams could never achieve.
“McGuinness deserves to be evaluated in the round. He took political risks which were not always reciprocated. He remained defensive about the past actions of the IRA.
“He also brought a workmanlike approach to the Executive table which met its match in the Bavarian business like approach of Peter Robinson. Even if he had lived longer, McGuinness and Foster were never a comfortable partnership.
“McGuinness brought the republican movement through a series of policy U-turns unthinkable in his younger days. These policy shifts were executed in an almost military-cum-Putin style of leadership. He literally blew republican shibboleths to pieces. This could only have happened if led by someone like Martin McGuinness.
“He was a leader who had street credibility amongst the rank and file. He had earned his stripes. That he did all of this at considerable personal risk and without any major splits amongst Sinn Fein is nothing short of remarkable.
“With the absence of McGuinness, the current Sinn Fein leadership looks light in comparison. History will judge him kinder than Gerry Adams. He earned that right.”
Tonge argues that McGuinness helped reposition Sinn Fein into mainstream politics, saying: “McGuinness ended ambiguities on policing and was determined to marginalise dissident republicans, who regarded him with as much contempt as did many unionists.
“McGuinness’s ‘traitors’ line towards dissidents was thrown back at him by them. Within Sinn Fein, McGuinness remained admired, respected and feared.
“Michelle O’Neill is not seen as part of the so-called ‘war generation’ and is less ‘toxic’ to political opponents in that sense. However, the more immediate post-conflict era probably required McGuinness as DFM to consolidate the peace.”
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald will deliver a special online address on March 21 to mark the fifth anniversary of McGuinness’s passing. The Martin McGuinness Peace Foundation said in an announcement that it is “sure to be an informative and emotional address”.
“I also want to pay tribute to the mighty work of the foundation over the past five years, celebrating the life, work and achievements of Martin through reconciliation, education, sport, debate, art and culture and building on his tireless work for peace, justice and equality,” she explains.
It could be said that in Derry the departed watch over the living. The City Cemetery lies high on the hillside, and looks over the landmarks — the River Foyle, the city walls, the Bogside. It’s the lasting resting place of McGuinness, whose grave is marked by a Celtic cross. On sunny days it casts a long shadow, just like the late man’s mixed legacy, over Northern Ireland’s political landscape.