Martin McGuinness leaves behind complex legacy

Ian Paisley’s widow sets right tone at time when further reconciliation is needed

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.


In responding to the death of Martin McGuinness people had to find a balance between the twin facts of his paramilitary and peacemaking past.

Ian Paisley’s widow Eileen perhaps did it best, setting a positive and healing tone at a time when Ireland lost a leader with a real capacity for reconciliation, and at a time when further reconciliation is badly needed.

Norman Tebbit, who was seriously injured and whose wife Margaret was paralysed in the 1984 IRA Brighton bombing that killed five people, said the world was now a “sweeter place” with his death. “There can be no forgiveness without a confession of sins,” he said.

Many will understand such a response but more will have warmed to Baroness Paisley paying quiet but heartfelt tribute to McGuinness and his family and offering thanks for the friendship and support he had shown to her husband when he was First Minister and later when he was ill.

She added that she was not “minimising” the hurt caused by both republican and loyalist paramilitaries but said people can have Damascene conversions. She didn’t compare McGuinness to Paul but noted that the saint persecuted Christians and yet became a great apostle. “If God can do that to one man, He can do it to any man or any woman or any young person, whoever they are,” she told the BBC.

Baroness Paisley, regardless of Lord Tebbit’s view, said that “God is merciful” and agreed with the view of her son Ian, who offered: “How someone ends their life is much more important than how they begin it.”

From most people there was a genuine sense of loss, sadness and sympathy after news broke that McGuinness died early on Tuesday morning with his wife Bernie and his family around him in Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry.

The reaction reflected the complexity of McGuinness and of Northern Ireland – and of how his hard work and largeness of spirit softened the hostility of some, though not all, of his most bitter opponents.

There was also acknowledgment that here was a man who, for some 25 years, was a senior commander of an organisation that killed 1,800 people, notwithstanding the risibility of his claim to have left the IRA in 1974.

From war to peace

There was recognition too that as a politician he helped bring the republican movement from war to peace, that he persuaded it to support the police, that he forged the astonishing Chuckle Brothers relationship with Ian Paisley, that he condemned dissident killers of PSNI Constable Stephen Carroll as “traitors to Ireland”, that he could be easy and comfortable in the company of Queen Elizabeth.

First and foremost, nearly everyone observed the Irish protocol of condolences to the bereaved. Even Jim Allister, leader of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party, allowed: “Naturally, the passing of anyone causes grief and sorrow to their family and friends. All such families deserve condolences.”

And naturally too Allister then went on to say McGuinness “lived many more decades than most of his victims” and that his “primary thoughts are with the many victims of the IRA who never reached the age of 66”.

Still, Allister maintained a certain etiquette that he might not have offered to some other republican figures.

Callers to BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan Show linked McGuinness to Troubles horrors such as the IRA in 1990 using Patsy Gillespie as a “human bomb” in Derry to kill him and five British soldiers; how the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing of 1987 ultimately claimed 12 lives and injured scores more; how in 1986 McGuinness allegedly lured alleged IRA informer Frank Hegarty back to his native Derry to be murdered after – reportedly on bended knee – promising his mother he would not be harmed.

There will be more such responses in the coming days providing a counterweight to the stories of McGuinness’s undeniably pivotal place in the peace process. But the general reaction so far has been respectful, even from those such as Alan McBride who have particular reason to be aggrieved by the actions of the IRA.

McBride, who lost his wife Sharon and his father-in-law Desmond Frizzell in the IRA Shankill bombing of 1993, offered a wise view. “You have to weigh up his whole life,” he said.


He agreed that, yes, McGuinness’s “fingerprints are all over the Troubles” but they were “also all over the peace process”.

McBride also was mindful that it must have been a disappointment to McGuinness that after almost 10 years of uninterrupted devolution that his final major political act was to bring it crashing down over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

“I would give anything to go back to the Chuckle Brothers. I would give anything to go back to those days. In those days we seemed to be in a much better place than we are now,” said McBride.

Derry Presbyterian minister Rev Dr David Latimer also had useful words that reflected the nature of McGuinness the IRA man, the political man and the family man. Dr Latimer generated controversy when at the Sinn Féin ardfheis in Belfast in 2011 he described McGuinness as “one of the true great leaders of modern times”.

“I am aware that not everyone will see Martin through the lens that I am able to view him because I have got to know him and I have got close to him,” Dr Latimer told the BBC.

“It is not always as we once were. If we concentrate on the person that we know from the past, we fail to see who that person has become now,” he said.

Dr Latimer added: “It is about finishing, and I want to say very publicly and confidently and very hopefully to Bernie and the whole family that Martin McGuinness, a man of the people, has finished well.

“He has offered us a basis for continuing to build a foundation that is going to help this little fragile peace process of ours if we pay attention to the way he did things and the way he conducted himself as a politician. I think he has left an example that will allow us to move forward into the future with the torch burning a little more brightly.”

McGuinness did indeed set an example. As a reporter you had rows with him over the years but never a longstanding fall-out. And that was the experience of most people who dealt with him politically. Equally, there were times when, baited or annoyed, he couldn’t contain the sharp flash of anger – it was on such occasions you got an insight into the authority and discipline he would have commanded and demanded as an IRA leader.

Impossible to dislike

But his anger subsided fairly quickly. One unionist complained that he was “impossible to dislike”. It was that affability and ability to make friends and to find resolutions to difficult problems that made him such a successful politician.

The politician who had a very serious quarrel with McGuinness was the DUP leader Arlene Foster; so serious that it led to the collapse of Stormont and Assembly elections where Sinn Féin came within one seat of equalling the Stormont strength of the DUP. The lesson there was that while McGuinness wanted political accommodation, he could not be taken for granted, that reciprocation and courtesy were required.

Foster struck a better note when responding to his death. She referred to him both as “Martin” and “Martin McGuinness” and offered sympathy to his family. She noted how she and McGuinness were the only two politicians who had served continuously in the Northern Executive from 2007 up to its dissolution.

In a measured statement mindful of her own constituency, she referred to the hurt of victims of the IRA, while adding, “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.”

No one can challenge that fact. The test now is to determine if the spirit of generosity and compromise that McGuinness leaves behind can be rekindled to help restore the power-sharing administration, and help ensure the political legacy he fought so hard and peacefully to create.

Gerry Moriarty is Northern Editor