‘The Irish Times’ view: Martin McGuinness became a first-class politician

His journey was symbolised by his handshake with Queen Elizabeth in 2012

Martin McGuinness had a profound impact on the island of Ireland for almost half a century. From the early 1990s, he was a key figure in bringing peace to a bitterly-divided society but there is no getting away from the fact that in the decades before that he played a critical role in directing a ruthless campaign of violence that destroyed so many lives.

The tributes paid to him over the past 24 hours reflect the positive role he played in helping to bring about peace. But his earlier years as one of the leaders of the Provisional IRA campaign of violence should not be glossed over. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was one of the key movers in an organisation responsible for the deaths of some 1,800 men, women and children and the serious maiming of thousands more.

The position he held in the republican movement meant that he had huge influence over the decision to move from the Armalite to the ballot box when it became clear that violence was fruitless. Without his firm commitment to the cessation of violence by the IRA, putting arms beyond use and acceptance of the judicial and political systems North and South, the Belfast Agreement would not have been possible.

McGuinness made the transition from militant republicanism to becoming a politician of the first rank, using his position as Deputy First Minister in a power-sharing executive to promote political accommodation and dialogue over physical force in the cause of a united Ireland.


He developed a good working relationship first with the Rev Ian Paisley and then with Peter Robinson and was obviously sincere in his efforts to make power sharing work for the benefit of the two communities. The same level of mutual understanding never developed with Arlene Foster but that was not due to lack of effort on his part.

As well as trying to work closely with successive DUP leaders, McGuinness was unequivocal in his opposition to attempts by the Real IRA and its offshoots to reignite republican violence. Probably the greatest demonstration of how far his political journey had taken him was his initial handshake with Queen Elizabeth in 2012. That gesture required courage on both their parts and was an important milestone in cementing peace.

Although McGuinness maintained his support for the ultimate goal of a united Ireland, he demonstrated a commitment to working the power sharing institutions established by the Belfast Agreement to the best of his ability. Such firm commitment to those institutions has not always been as evident in the behaviour of some Sinn Féin colleagues.

His death – sadly too early – has come in the week Northern Ireland faces yet another political cross roads. The spirit of compromise he learned should be an example to all those engaged in the latest round of talks.