Belfast Telegraph

Martin McGuinness: Unionist leaders pay tribute in Assembly to the 'outreach' of former Deputy First Minister

By Noel McAdam

The two main unionist leaders have paid tribute to Martin McGuinness - and have said unionism could learn lessons from the former Deputy First Minister.

A sombre special session of the Assembly gathered yesterday to mark the passing of the 66-year-old who served on the Executive for almost a decade.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said the gathering was "fitting" and that she doubted whether Northern Ireland "will ever see his like again".

And Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said if unionists had anything to learn from Mr McGuinness, it was about the importance of "outreach".

"He reached outside his comfort zone on many occasions, but unionism didn't always reciprocate," he said.

"We must be better in taking the case of unionism, confidently, to the widest possible audience."

There were stories of Mr McGuinness' boundless attempts to connect with people.

Former Justice Minister David Ford told how, in a room where party members were all at their respective tables, Mr McGuinness sat between his wife and the wife of the then PSNI Chief Constable. "That was his personality - always seeking to reach out," he said.

And Mr Ford's successor as Alliance leader, Naomi Long, spoke of once introducing a nephew to Mr McGuinness by saying: "This is a very important man," to which Martin replied: "Has somebody come in?"

Mr Nesbitt told of how he had walked around the Stormont estate with Mr McGuinness after they met by chance one day.

"If anybody needed to be convinced that Martin McGuinness was genuine about wanting devolution to work, that was the conversation to tune into," he said.

Mr Nesbitt said it would be dishonest to ignore the pain of the victims of the IRA, but history would be "very positive" about Mr McGuinness's motivation as a politician.

An emotional Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill was the first leader to speak, describing her mentor as a "political visionary" and "gifted strategist and orator" who, apart from a leader and role model, was "our dear and valued friend".

She said Mr McGuinness had always challenged party colleagues to 'reach out' to those from the unionist tradition and even in his last public statement, near his Bogside home, had urged people to choose "hope over fear".

Mrs Foster said history would have the final say on the "complex and challenging" legacy of Mr McGuinness, but for many victims painful memories had been opened up with his death causing "very real" pain which had to be recognised.

"But I do recognise also that there are many republicans and nationalists who look to Martin as a leader, friend or mentor who will be feeling a very real sense of loss that he has died in this way at the relatively young age of 66," she said.

"It is precisely because of his past, because of his involvement with the IRA in the 70s and 80s, because of his influence within those circles, that he was able to play the role he played in bringing the republican movement towards using peaceful and democratic means.

"And because of all of that, I doubt we will ever see his like again."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "In my experience of Martin McGuinness, peace was not a tactic; it had become a fundamental principle of everything that he did."

Alliance leader Naomi Long spoke of Mr McGuinness' "pivotal role" in bringing the IRA's violent campaign to an end and moving us to the place we are in today.

But Mrs Long also acknowledged "those who suffered, who today will find this a very difficult time".

In sharp contrast, however, TUV leader Jim Allister said: "He goes to his grave having shown no remorse and no regret and having made no apology for the terror that he brought to our streets; rather, he continued to justify the bloodthirsty wickedness that was the IRA campaign."

Mr Allister said while Mr McGuinness had died aged 66 on March 21, on the same date in 1988, police officer Clive Graham was shot at a checkpoint in the Creggan estate by the IRA, never getting the chance to live to 66 "because a man of blood decided that he would die".

Former Justice Minister Claire Sugden said: "I am a unionist and was brought up thinking a very certain way about Martin McGuinness, but when I became a member of the Executive last year, my opinion significantly changed because he was very kind, generous and supportive of me in that role."

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