Martin McGuinness, former IRA chief of staff and a key figure in the Northern Ireland peace process, died just two months after stepping down as deputy first minister. The 66-year-old Irish republican died after a short illness in Derry’s Altnagelvin hospital surrounded by his family. He had a rare genetic disease caused by deposits of abnormal protein – amyloid – in tissues and organs.
Gerry Adams, his closest political ally, confirmed that McGuinness died. Adams said: “Throughout his life, Martin showed great determination, dignity and humility and it was no different during his short illness. He was a passionate republican who worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation and for the reunification of his country.” Adams later visited McGuinness’s family in the Bogside area of Derry.
As a tricolour flag flew at half-mast near Free Derry Corner, a landmark denoting a nationalist area of the city, tributes and reactions were swiftly issued in Northern Ireland and beyond. To many he was seen as a peacemaker, a man who, having once argued that the British presence in Ireland could only be ended by armed struggle, became a passionate believer in compromise with the unionist community.
But some still regard him primarily as a key figure in the IRA terrorist group that killed more than 1,500 people before Sinn Féin, its political wing, embraced the compromises its peaceful rivals in the Social Democratic and Labour party had articulated from the 1960s onwards.
Tony Blair, who was British prime minister during the Good Friday negotiations, acknowledged that those who had lost loved ones would be unable to forget the past. However, he added: “Once he became the peacemaker, he became it wholeheartedly and with no shortage of determined opposition to those who wanted to carry on the war. I will remember him therefore with immense gratitude for the part he played in the peace process, and with genuine affection for the man I came to know and admire for his contribution to peace.”
From across Northern Ireland’s political divide, Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist leader and former Stormont first minister, offered her condolences and said the news would come as a shock to many. Foster said: “He was pivotal in bringing the republican movement towards a position of using peaceful and democratic means.” Sending her thoughts to his family, she added that history would record differing views on McGuinness but he had played a pivotal role in bringing the republican movement toward peace.
In a tribute that reflected the unlikely friendship McGuinness formed with then Democratic Unionist party leader Ian Paisley during his time in office, a Twitter account in the name of Paisley’s son Kyle said: “Very sorry to hear about the passing of Martin McGuinness. Look back with pleasure on the remarkable year he and my father spent in office together and the great good they did together. Will never forget his ongoing care for my father in his ill-health.”
The president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, led tributes from the Republic, saying McGuinness’s death left a gap that would be hard to fill.
“The world of politics and the people across this island will miss the leadership he gave, shown most clearly during the difficult times of the peace process, and his commitment to the values of genuine democracy that he demonstrated in the development of the institutions in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said McGuinness’s death marked “a significant loss”, adding: “Not only did Martin come to believe that peace must prevail, he committed himself to working tirelessly to that end.”
Sir John Major, who issued the 1993 joint declaration that was credited with giving impetus to the peace process, said that he had a mixed legacy. “I cannot find any redeeming quality in what he did over those years,” he said, referring to his days in the IRA. But he added: “I do recognise the part he subsequently played in building a peace process”.
McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister in the Northern Ireland assembly on 9 January because of Foster’s refusal to stand down temporarily as first minister during an inquiry into a public energy scandal. McGuinness’s resignation triggered the collapse of the power-sharing government and the calling of new elections in which, he announced on 19 January, he would not be standing.
During his last press conference, McGuinness appeared frail and there had been reports in recent weeks that his condition had deteriorated severely. He was too ill in December to join a trade mission to China with Foster.
Married with four children, McGuinness was the IRA’s chief of staff from 1979 until 1982 and ran the paramilitary movement when Lord Louis Mountbatten and 18 British soldiers were killed on the same day.
Alongside Gerry Adams, McGuinness courted Tony Blair from the moment the Labour leader won his landslide election in May 1997. The Sinn Féin leaders were able to negotiate concessions from the prime minister, ranging from early IRA prisoner releases to the controversial “on-the-runs” scheme, in which wanted republicans were given “letters of comfort” that appeared to offer them immunity from arrest or prosecution.
The snap election triggered by McGuinness’s resignation resulted in Sinn Féin coming within one seat of the Democratic Unionists as the largest party in the assembly. In the days after the result, McGuinness’s health deteriorated and he had to be moved from his home in Derry, where he was receiving palliative care, to Altnagelvin hospital’s high-dependency unit.
After his liver failed, his wife, Bernie, posted a prayer on her Facebook page stating: “Things may look dark and bleak now, but I have faith that my dawn is coming. In Jesus name, amen!”