Bill Clinton says Martin McGuinness would sum up his life as: ‘I fought. I made peace. I made politics’

Thousands pay respects in Derry

Former US president Bill Clinton has paid an emotional tribute to Martin McGuinness, the former Sinn Féin deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander at his funeral in a packed St Columba's Church in Derry. Video: Alan Betson

 

Former US president Bill Clinton urged the congregation at the funeral of Martin McGuinness to finish the work of creating a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

Thousands of people gathered at St Columba’s church in Derry, and on the streets outside, to pay their respects to the former Sinn Féin deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander.

Mr McGuinness’s wife Bernie and children, Gráinne, Fionnuala, Fiachra and Emmet escorted the coffin, draped in a tricolour, out of their house on Westland Terrace on Thursday afternoon. Mr McGuinness (66) died on Tuesday from a rare heart condition.

Family members assisted in shouldering the coffin as did senior Sinn Féin figures such as party president Gerry Adams, Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill and deputy party leader Mary Lou McDonald.

Dignitaries included Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Mr Clinton, President Michael D Higgins, former taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, Northern Secretary James Brokenshire, John Hume and PSNI chief Constable George Hamilton, as well as Northern Ireland’s former first ministers Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson.

Mr Clinton was applauded as he made his way into St Columba’s church. He and Mr Kenny sympathised with the McGuinness family after the coffin arrived in the church.

“After all the breath he expended cursing the British, he worked with two prime ministers and shook hands with the Queen,” said Mr Clinton in his eulogy.

Mr Clinton told the 1,500 people packed into Saint Columba’s Church that Mr McGuinness “persevered and he prevailed, he risked the wrath of his comrades and rejection of his adversaries. If you really came here to celebrate his life and honour the contribution of the last chapter of it, you have to finish his work.”

He said he treasured every encounter he had with Mr McGuinness and that his late friend could eulogise far better than him.

He said Mr McGuinness would sum up his life quickly by saying “‘I fought. I made peace. I made politics’”.

Risked wrath

Mr Clinton said Mr McGuinness “risked the wrath” of his comrades in turning towards peace.

And he commended Ms Foster for attending the Mass, saying he knew her life “had been marked in a painful way by the Troubles”.

He added that peace needs legitimate grief on both sides if people are to embrace the future together.

In a speech that married humour with emotional content, Mr Clinton joked that Mr McGuinness seemed “married to Gerry” Adams as long as he was married to his wife Bernie.

And of Mr McGuinness’s special relationship with Ian Paisley he said “It was great he got a word in edgeways — I never could”.

Again to applause he praised Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who was in the church, for speaking on behalf of Irish immigrants in front of President Donald Trump in the White House in Washington on St Patrick’s Day.

Earlier, Bishop of Derry, Dr Donal McKeown McKeown welcomed everyone to the funeral, while Fr Michael Canny delivered the homily.

Fr Canny said that if people wanted to see a monument to Mr McGuinness they should look around them.

“There are people in this church today whose presence would have been unthinkable only a generation ago,” he said. “They have forged working relationships with Martin McGuinness; they have built friendships with him; they have occupied Stormont’s benches alongside him. Some have even sat in government with him.

“The presence of those political rivals and opponents among you, who have come to pay their respects this afternoon, is the most eloquent testimony to the memory of Martin McGuinness. When you seek his monument, you – by your presence – are his monument.”

Complex man

Fr Canny said Mr McGuinness was a complex man who was born into a community where faith, Catholicism and nationalism were intertwined. “He was a man of simple tastes who ascended to the political summit.

Frances Black sings beside the flag-draped coffin of Martin McGuinness outside St Columba’s Church. Photograph: Paul Mcerlane/EPA
Frances Black sings beside the flag-draped coffin of Martin McGuinness outside St Columba’s Church. Photograph: Paul Mcerlane/EPA

“I have had many conversations with Martin down through the years and he knew only too well how many people struggled with his IRA past. Republicans were not blameless, and many people right across the community find it difficult to forgive and impossible to forget.”

Fr Canny referred to how many people had described Mr McGuinness’s life as a journey from war to peace. In that context he quoted the epistle reading from the book of Ecclesiastes with the lines that there is “a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.’

“On that journey many years ago, Martin realised that the time for peace had come and he pursued the peace process with relentless energy for the rest of his days, until illness finally struck him down. In the course of that journey he encountered many obstacles but he remained resolute,” said Fr Canny.

Arlene Foster and Bishop John McKeown arriving for the funeral of Northern Ireland’s former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Arlene Foster and Bishop John McKeown arriving for the funeral of Northern Ireland’s former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

“In conversation he often repeated that there was no other way, we had to continually work for the building of peace and a better future for all. Despite many setbacks he never became disheartened.”

Man of faith

Fr Canny said Mr McGuinness also was a man of faith. Here he referred to the second reading where St Paul said he “had finished the race, he had kept the faith” and was prepared to meet the “righteous judge”.

“Martin, too, has finished the race. He, too, kept the faith. He, too, has come face to face with the righteous judge who judges all fairly.”

Ahead of the Mass, the chief executive of Cooperation Ireland Peter Sheridan was among the huge attendance. A former senior RUC and PSNI officer in Derry when Mr McGuinness was the city’s IRA leader, he said it was as “close to a state funeral as Derry has ever seen”.

Former Northern Ireland justice minister Claire Sugden, chief executive of the FAI John Delaney, GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghaíl, former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Ministers Simon Coveney and Shane Ross are also attending. A large Sinn Féin delegation including a host of MLAs and TDs were also in the packed church.

Ms Foster in an article in today’s Belfast Telegraph said she understood that some IRA victims would have misgivings but she wanted to pay “respect to his family”.

“Having worked with Martin McGuinness for almost a decade, I want to pay my respects to his family on the occasion of his death,” she wrote. “I recognise that some will be critical of my decision to attend this funeral and I respect their view.”