Martin McGuinness remembered at Belfast vigil

Thousands accompany the republican’s coffin as it is carried to his Derry home

Former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness has died at Derry's Altnagelvin Hospital aged 66. He had been receiving treatment for a rare health condition.

 

Thousands of people have gathered at a candlelit vigil in the republican heartland of west Belfast to pay tribute to Martin McGuinness, following his death at the age of 66.

The former Northern Ireland deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander died overnight in hospital in his native Derry, where he had been receiving treatment for a rare health condition. He is survived by his wife Bernie and four children.

The sombre event off the Falls Road happened hours after crowds in Derry accompanied the Sinn Féin politician’s coffin on his final journey home to his beloved Bogside neighbourhood.

At Tuesday night’s vigil, the crowd held black flags and sang the republican ballad I Wish I Was Back Home in Derry.

Addressing the vigil, Fr Gary Donegan hailed Mr McGuinness’s contribution to the peace process in the North.

“Martin was a hero in life and a hero in death,” he said.

Sinn Féin MP for West Belfast Paul Maskey told the crowds: “Martin fought for justice, equality and respect. He was a patriot, a peacemaker and a reconciler.”

Earlier on Tuesday, thousands of people had braved snow and sleet in Derry to accompany his coffin, draped in an Irish tricolour, from the funeral parlour to his home in the Bogside.

One mourner said: “He was a hero.”

An emotional Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said his long-time friend was a passionate republican who worked for reconciliation in Ireland.

“We are very, very sad that we lost him overnight,” he said.

Mr Adams and the Sinn Féin leader at Stormont, Michelle O’Neill, draped the tricolour flag over his coffin in Derry’s William Street. They also helped to carry the coffin.

Ms McGuinness bore his coffin past the Bogside’s landmark Free Derry Corner. His two sons, Fiachra and Emmett, shouldered his remains into his house.

A tricolour flag also flew at half-mast near the Free Derry Corner.

In his last major act as a politician, Mr McGuinness pulled down the powersharing executive at Stormont when he resigned as deputy first minister in January in protest at the handling of the so-called cash-for-ash controversy by the DUP.

Ten days later, showing signs of physical frailty, he announced his retirement from frontline politics.

Queen’s message

On Tuesday, it emerged Queen Elizabeth is to send a private message to the widow of Mr McGuinness following his death.

Mr McGuinness met the Queen and shook her hand at a charity event in Belfast in June 2012, an event which would once have been unimaginable.

Buckingham Palace indicated the Queen would be contacting his wife Bernie directly.

Tributes were paid to Mr McGuinness from across the political spectrum, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny saying he was deeply saddened to hear of his death.

“Martin will always be remembered for the remarkable political journey that he undertook in his lifetime.

“Not only did Martin come to believe that peace must prevail, he committed himself to working tirelessly to that end.”

Mr Kenny described Mr McGuinness as “one of the chief architects of the Good Friday Agreement and he worked resolutely in the years that followed it in pursuit of its full implementation”.

He said Mr McGuinness “strove to make Northern Ireland a better place for everyone, regardless of background or tradition”.

Former US president Bill Clinton said Mr McGuinness’s legacy should be an example for others to live by.

“When he decided to fight for peace, Martin was calm, courageous, and direct. And when he gave his word, that was as good as gold,” he said.

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who was central to the Good Friday Agreement being signed in 1998, described Mr McGuinness as an extraordinary, honest and upfront person.

Negotiations

“In negotiations when there is a lot at stake and it can’t be a winner takes all, Martin understood compromise,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

“He listened and he was able, I think, to arbitrate between different points of view.”

Mr Ahern said he could “totally” understand why Mr McGuinness joined the IRA but also put his life on the line to pursue peace.

“I think Martin McGuinness would have been happier following Derry GAA club or Derry City or fly-fishing in Donegal,” he said. “He was a good person in my view.”

British prime minister Theresa May said Mr McGuinness “made an essential and historic contribution” to the journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace.

“First and foremost, my thoughts are with the family of Martin McGuinness at this sad time.

“While I can never condone the path he took in the earlier part of his life, Martin McGuinness ultimately played a defining role in leading the republican movement away from violence.”

Former British prime minister Tony Blair said the peace process would not have been possible without the “leadership and courage” shown by Mr McGuinness.

Political career

Mr McGuinness became deputy first minister in 2007 and forged a strong relationship with the then first minister Rev Ian Paisley snr.

During their time in office, the pair earned the nickname the “Chuckle brothers”.

He subsequently worked with DUP leaders Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster.

Ms Foster, whose refusal to stand aside over the cash-for-ash controversy prompted Mr McGuinness’s resignation, said “history will record differing views and opinions on the role Martin McGuinness played throughout the recent and not so recent past.

“But history will also show that his contribution to the political and peace process was significant.

“He served the people of Northern Ireland as deputy first minister for nearly a decade and was pivotal in bringing the republican movement towards a position of using peaceful and democratic means,” she said.

Mr McGuinness’s successor as Sinn Féin leader at Stormont, Michelle O’Neill, said her heart was broken by the news.

“ We have lost a legend, a giant of a man. I’m very proud to say he was my friend and mentor,” she said on Twitter.

President Michael D Higgins, who faced Mr McGuinness in the 2011 Irish presidential race, praised Mr McGuinness’s contribution to the peace process.

“As President of Ireland, I wish to pay tribute to his immense contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland - a contribution which has rightly been recognised across all shades of opinion.”

A spokesman for the US State Department said:

“McGuinness worked to make the powersharing in government a cornerstone of consolidating peace and building prosperity in the region. In making difficult decisions to move away from militancy, McGuinness worked to end violence and promote cross-community reconciliation.”

Books of condolence are to be opened in Derry and Cork.

The former speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Robin Newton, has invited MLAs to gather in the Assembly chamber at noon on Wednesday to pay tribute to Mr McGuinness and offer condolences to his family.

Additional reporting: PA