Gerry Adams: The Martin McGuinness I knew

‘Martin did extraordinary things in extraordinary times, but he was also very ordinary – a true man of the people’

Yesterday, Ireland lost a hero. Derry lost a son. Sinn Féin lost a leader, and I lost a dear friend and a comrade. Martin's family have suffered the biggest loss of all. They have lost a loving, caring, dedicated husband, father and grandfather, a brother and an uncle. Above all else, Martin loved his family, and my heart goes out to his wife Bernie, his sons Fiachra and Emmet, his daughters Fionnuala and Gráinne, Martin's grandchildren, his sister Geraldine, brothers Paul, William, Declan, Tom and John and the extended McGuinness family.

Martin was a formidable person of the rarest kind – one who did extraordinary things in extraordinary times, but he was also a man who was, in many ways, very ordinary: particularly in his habits and personal lifestyle. He was a true man of the people, a personification of Derry – the city he loved with all his heart and the city that moulded the humility and warmth that defined him.

Like many other Derry "wans", Martin grew up in a city in which Catholics were victims of widespread political and economic discrimination. Poverty was endemic. The Orange state's violent suppression of the civil rights campaign, the Battle of the Bogside and the emerging conflict propelled Martin into a life less ordinary.

We first met, 45 years ago, behind the barricades of Free Derry. We have been friends and comrades ever since. From time spent on the run, to imprisonment in the Curragh and Portlaoise in the 1970s, through his time as Northern education minister and later deputy first minister, Martin made an unparalleled journey.


Republican ideals

Throughout that journey, Martin remained committed to the same ideals that led to his becoming a republican activist in the first instance – the pursuit of Irish unification, freedom, equality and respect for all. It was a desire to see the domination and discrimination that he experienced on the streets of his native Derry as a young man ended.

Thanks to Martin we now live in a very different Ireland, which has been changed irrevocably. Without him, I don’t think there could have been the type of peace process we’ve had, and much of the change we now take for granted could not have been achieved. His contribution to the evolution of republican thinking was enormous, as was his popularising of republican ideals.

Over many years of working together, Martin and I both learned that advances in struggle require creativity and imagination and a willingness to take initiatives. Martin embraced that challenge and he didn’t just talk about change, he delivered it.

He once said: “When change begins, and we have the confidence to embrace it as an opportunity and a friend, and show honest and positive leadership, then so much is possible.”

It was a source of great pride for me following the Good Friday Agreement to nominate Martin as the North’s minister for education. It was a position he embraced; putting equality and fairness into practice in the Department of Education, seeking to end the 11-plus exam and improve outcomes for every child.

In 2007, he became deputy first minister and an equal partner to Ian Paisley in government. They forged not only a working relationship, but a friendship that illustrated to all the progress we have made on the island of Ireland. His reconciliation and outreach work, and his work on behalf of victims and for peace, in Ireland and internationally, have been justifiably widely applauded.

Real test of leadership

As part of that work, Martin met Queen Elizabeth of England several times. He did so while very conscious of the criticism this might provoke. He would be the first to acknowledge that some republicans and nationalists were discommoded at times by his efforts to reach out the hand of friendship, and some unionist leaders were discommoded also. That is the real test of leadership – to reach out beyond your base.

It is a test that Martin passed every time.

He was guided by the principles of mutual respect, equality and parity of esteem that underpinned the Good Friday Agreement, and the republican values of liberty, equality and solidarity.

The consequence of straying from those principles of the Good Friday Agreement has in recent months led to the regrettable collapse of the North’s political institution, but his legacy will be to show that in the face of adversity, we can overcome. That is a legacy we must build on.

While he had a passion for politics, Martin was not one-dimensional. He enjoyed storytelling and he was a decent poet, with a special place in his heart for Seamus Heaney and Patrick Kavanagh. He enjoyed cooking, growing herbs, sports of all kinds and fly fishing, but especially the space to have time with Bernie and their family. That's what grounded Martin McGuinness.

I am thankful to him – for his strength, for his vision and for being the Martin so many of us knew and loved. You will be sorely and dearly missed my friend. Go raibh maith agat agus go dté tú slán a chara.

Gerry Adams is president of Sinn Féin