Sinn Fien’s Martin McGuinness, former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland and ex-commander of the terrorist organization known as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has died at age of 66. McGuinness was one of the most prominent figures in the peace building process in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which ended 30 years of sectarian violence between republican and loyalist paramilitary groups.
For many people across the globe, the period of violence and terrorism known as “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland will be a distant news story and the name Martin McGuinness will be of little significance. However, for those of us in the UK and the Republic of Ireland where the violence was a reality, “The Troubles” is a recent part of our political history and is still influential in Northern Ireland’s political and cultural understandings. The conflict in Northern Ireland which is dated as ongoing between 1968 and 1998 was fought over the future of the country. The conflict was between ‘Unionists’ who believe Northern Ireland should remain as a part of the United Kingdom alongside England, Scotland and Wales and ‘Republicans’ – the minority group in this conflict – who want Northern Ireland to secede from the union and join the Republic of Ireland, which gained independence from the UK in 1922.
Over thirty years, violence and killing was perpetrated by both sides. The BBC reported that the total number of deaths exceeded 3,600 and the number of those physically injured stands at over 50,000. The Good Friday Agreement marked the beginning of the peace process in Northern Ireland, in which all signatories agreed to the “consent principle” of which any constitutional changes in Northern Ireland would have to be agreed by a popular majority vote in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The peace process was fitful in Northern Ireland but crucial to the end of conflict. It established the political alignment and partnership between the polar opposite groups of Unionists and Republicans.
Central to this advancement was Martin McGuinness, an ex-commander of the IRA, a paramilitary who denounced violence in favor of peace and partnership with his ideological opposite. This led him to the position of deputy first minister for Sinn Fein – the political branch of the IRA – alongside first minister Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party.
There has been mixed commentary on the death of Martin McGuinness. On the one hand, McGuinness’ contributions to peace in Northern Ireland have been celebrated. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire commented that “No-one can doubt the essential role he played in helping to secure the power sharing arrangements and political progress in Northern Ireland…Martin’s personal journey and the clear influence he had on others in the Republican movement were instrumental in shaping political institutions in Northern Ireland founded on exclusively peaceful and democratic means.” The President of the Republic of Ireland said “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.” On the other hand, many commentators who hold McGuinness responsible for his role in “The Troubles,” feel tributes to McGuinness have somehow whitewashed his violent history and the acts of terror committed by the IRA. For Lord Tebbit, who was injured in an IRA bombing in Brighton, McGuinness was a “coward” and “murderer, a multi-murderer. He became a man of peace because he knew that he was shortly to be arrested and charged with specifically murders which he had committed himself.”
Regardless of personal opinion on McGuinness it is clear he represents an extraordinary example of a journey from violence to peace. The journey from thirty years of turmoil in Northern Ireland to a political partnership between constitutional opposites is historic. The current peace and stability in Northern Ireland should be credited to Northern Ireland’s political leaders – including McGuinness – and the people of Northern Ireland. And should therefore serve as an example for the rest of the world.