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Martin McGuinness exit a significant moment in Irish politics

Republicans will miss him, but unionists with political sense may do so too

Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, with his wife Bernie, addresses supporters who gathered outside his home in Derry on Thursday night. Photograph: Trevor McBride
Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness leaves Bishops Gate hotel after announcing his intention not to see re-election, in Derry, Northern Ireland, January 19th, 2017. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Martin McGuinness bowing out is a significant moment in Irish politics and, it can’t be denied, in modern Irish history too.

It has been the leadership, strategic sense and the personalities of the Adams-McGuinness partnership that has in the main been responsible for Sinn Féin’s success. Now it is just Gerry Adams.

There will be mixed views about McGuinness, the Derry republican who was a ruthless commander of an organisation responsible for some 1,800 killings during the Troubles.

No bearing on conflict

Many hundreds of them were civilians who had no bearing on the conflict. Their bereaved relations might not be so sanguine or generous about McGuinness.

Equally, the widows, spouses, partners, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers of British soldiers and RUC officers shot dead or blown up by the IRA might care little for McGuinness’s exiting of political life. The same might be said about the families of alleged informers dumped in ditches by the IRA.

As mentioned here before, British army officers acknowledged that McGuinness was “Sandhurst material”, that he was a natural leader of men and women. He commanded loyalty and got loyalty.

That was recognised as early as 1972 when McGuinness, aged just 22, was part of a senior IRA delegation that secretly met the then northern secretary, William Whitelaw, in London.

‘Break the link with Britain’

In his valedictory statement on Thursday night, McGuinness said it remained his “own personal and political ambition to break the link with Britain and to unite all who share this island under the common banner of Irish men and women”.

And, despite some Sinn Féin rewriting of Troubles history to characterise the IRA as a civil rights organisation, that was what the IRA was about, getting the “Brits out”. That didn’t happen.

So, while McGuinness was a “cutting edge” figure in the IRA, the paramilitary campaign failed.

But the organisation’s political campaign succeeded, and McGuinness was central to that success.

As a former IRA chief of staff and colleague of McGuinness, the late John Kelly was wont to say, “It wasn’t the IRA war that brought Sinn Féin success, it was the IRA peace.” It took republicans a long time to see that.

A force for good

McGuinness was a positive figure in politics, a force for good. The Adams-McGuinness nexus is an interesting one: Adams, the Machiavellian figure, the long-game republican; McGuinness, the leader with an occasional short fuse but companionable and quick to mend fences.

Republicans will miss him as their chief representative in the North, but unionists with political sense may have reason to miss him too.

His good humour and conciliatory political nature allowed democratic politics, after years of stop-start government following from the 1998 Belfast Agreement, to take root and grow - although never the sturdiest of plants.

Political nous matters - but so does personality. McGuinness had oodles of it. He used that attribute to strike the most astonishing and genuine friendship with Ian Paisley.

There was symmetry to why their relationship worked: they had both fought terrible battles, wreaked awful damage, and now was the time to make politics work, and where possible to make society work.

He worked too with Robinson’s successor Peter Robinson, and while they had some tricky moments, that arrangement too ended well.

Symbolic gestures

McGuinness was conscious of symbolic gestures, as was Robinson on occasion.

McGuinness regularly crossed the peace line, reaching out to unionists, gaining respect slowly in places where previously he would have met anger and hatred.

Sectarianism is still there, but it doesn’t feel as ingrained in Northern society any more, and McGuinness played his part in that slow thaw.

It’s a pity that what he started building up with Ian Paisley almost 10 years ago has crumbled.

It will be for another to lead Sinn Féin in the North in trying to reconstruct it - whether that person be Michelle O’Neill, Conor Murphy, John O’Dowd, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, or some other figure that Gerry Adams might push into the political limelight.

Perhaps had Arlene Foster heeded the advice of McGuinness, he would be leaving more stable political architecture behind. Or perhaps another deeper political game was being played by Sinn Féin, as the DUP suspects, that made a deal impossible over recent weeks.

A big moment

Regardless, this is a big moment, as a major political figure exits the stage. His generosity of spirit helped politics and community relations over the past 10 years. The hope now is that this generosity won’t be lost.

There was some evidence of it on Thursday night.

Foster, who must be under considerable political and personal pressure, issued a generous statement acknowledging their differences but describing McGuinness as a “major figure at Stormont”.

“Despite all that has happened I wish Martin McGuinness a speedy recovery and that he and his wife are able to enjoy time with their family away from the relentless focus of public life,” she said.

Kind words, that most people will echo, and badly needed at this pivotal time.