North’s leaders remember Martin McGuinness at Stormont

Former DUP first minister Arlene Foster says: ‘I doubt we will ever see his like again’

Former DUP first minister Arlene Foster was one of the Northern party leaders who paid tribute to Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness at Stormont on Wednesday, saying it was doubtful if Northern Ireland would "ever see his like again".

The Sinn Féin politician and former deputy first minister died overnight on Tuesday at the age of 66.

Ms Foster, who had shared the Executive Office at Stormont with Mr McGuinness, was among those who signed a book of condolences for the veteran republican in the grand hall of Parliament Buildings.

Party leaders and MLAs then paid tribute to Mr McGuinness in the Assembly chamber.

Most speakers at the Assembly event acknowledged Mr McGuinness’s IRA past and remembered the victims of the republican group’s campaign.

However, they also honoured Mr McGuinness’s role in the Northern peace process.

The harshest words came from Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister, who said: "I come to note the death of Martin McGuinness, but not to praise him."

While Mr McGuinness walked away from Stormont three months ago after Ms Foster refused to stand down as first minister over her party’s handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, the DUP leader told the chamber that they had worked well together.

She recalled that they had stood united in condemning the killings by dissident republicans of British soldiers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey and of PSNI officers Stephen Carroll and Ronan Kerr.

She also said that this time was “hugely difficult” for victims of IRA violence.

“I would never seek to minimise the very real pain they are going through. Indeed I understand that pain and I empathise with all those innocent victims throughout Northern Ireland,” she said.

“But I do recognise also that there are many republicans and nationalists who look to Martin as a leader, friend or mentor, who will be feeling a very real sense of loss that he has died in this way at the relatively young age of 66.”

History would have the “final say” on Mr McGuinness, said Ms Foster.

She added that she still condemned his role in the IRA during the Troubles, while understanding that it was his past that helped facilitate the peace process.

“It is precisely because of his past, because of his involvement with the IRA in the ’70s and ’80s, because of his influence within those circles, that he was able to play the role he played in bringing the republican movement towards using peaceful and democratic means, and because of all of that I doubt we will ever see his like again,” she said.

Ms Foster concluded by quoting Mr McGuinness's favourite poet, Seamus Heaney: "So hope for a great sea change, on the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore is reachable from here."

‘A broken heart’

Sinn Féin’s Northern leader Michelle O’Neill said she had a “broken heart but a heart that is bursting with pride” because she was so honoured to pay tribute to Mr McGuinness.

She described Mr McGuinness as a “political visionary” and a “gifted political strategist” who had “always challenged party colleagues to reach out to those from a unionist tradition”.

“For the Sinn Féin MLAs in this chamber and for the Irish republican family across this island and beyond, he was our leader, he was our inspiration, our role model and he was, above all else, our dear and valued friend,” said Ms O’Neill.

In her entry in the book of condolences, she paraphrased a famous comment of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, writing: "Your legacy will live forever in the laughter of our children."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said politicians should be inspired by Mr McGuinness to conclude the current talks on restoring devolution in the North.

He recalled the victims of the Troubles, but added that Mr McGuinness’s career “started in violence, but ended up very much grounded in principles of peace and partnership”.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said it would be "dishonest" of him "to ignore the pain of the victims of the IRA" when discussing Mr McGuinness.

However, he added: “History will also reflect on Martin McGuinness as more than an IRA commander. History will be very positive about his motivation as a politician.

“If unionism has anything to learn from Martin McGuinness, it is the importance of outreach.

“He reached outside his comfort zone on many occasions but unionism didn’t always reciprocate.”

Alliance leader Naomi Long also remembered the suffering of the IRA's victims, while praising Mr McGuinness for his "pivotal role in bringing the [republican group's] violent campaign to an end and moving us to the place we are in today".

TUV leader Jim Allister said his thoughts primarily were with the “many victims of Martin McGuinness’s murderous IRA”.

He said the death of anyone evoked sympathy for the family of the deceased and that was no different in the case of Mr McGuinness.

“But what is different is that he himself bears responsibility for many violent and needless deaths in our community,” he said.

“As an IRA terrorist and commander, his hands drip with the blood of the innocent.

“He goes to his grave having shown no remorse, no regret, no apology for the terror he brought to our streets, rather continuing to justify that bloodthirsty wickedness that was the IRA campaign.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, who was at Stormont on Wednesday for further talks on restoring the Northern Executive and Assembly following the latest elections, also signed the book of condolences for Mr McGuinness.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times