Martin McGuinness leaves the political stage: from revolutionary to advocate of compromise and co-existence

He has reached out to unionists and left Northern Ireland a better place

 

Martin McGuinness will be missed in Irish politics. As an influential and stabilising voice within republicanism, the Deputy First Minister in power-sharing executives devoted the latter decades of his life to advocating political accommodation and dialogue over physical force in the cause of a united Ireland. He preached compromise and co-existence with unionists and stood as Sinn Féin’s candidate for President in 2011.

Responses by government leaders and political opponents to his resignation due to illness were invariably complimentary. They reflected the transition he had made from committed IRA gunman and chief of staff of an organisation responsible for some 1,800 killings during the Troubles to his role in devising and promoting the Belfast Agreement; putting arms beyond use; accepting the judicial system and participating at the highest level in power-sharing executives. It was a long and harrowing passage for all.

If most political journeys end in failure, Mr McGuinness may be fortunate in that regard. His resignation as Deputy First Minister because of Arlene Foster’s handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme forced Assembly elections. The indications are, however, that Sinn Féin – under a new leader to be appointed on Monday – will maintain, or even strengthen, its position in the Assembly. At a time of generational change in Sinn Féin’s leadership, that would be a significant achievement, particularly if early agreement can be reached on re-establishing an executive.

Mr McGuinness occupied influential positions, first as a physical force revolutionary and then as an advocate for peaceful and democratic means. When circumstances changed, he had the courage to adapt to them. But the objective of bringing about a united Ireland remained. That brought the peace process and, eventually, devolved government. He has worked – not always comfortably – with Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster. Recognising the need for communal cooperation, he reached out to unionists and has left Northern Ireland in a better place.

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