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Martin McGuinness, IRA chief turned politician, dies at 66

Paul Faith, AFP | Former deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness at a press conference in Belfast on January 23, 2017.

Northern Ireland’s former deputy first minister and one-time IRA (Irish Republican Army) commander Martin McGuinness has died aged 66, his Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein said on Tuesday.


The former convicted IRA commander who laid down his arms to become a key architect of Northern Ireland's peace, died on Tuesday aged 66, prompting tributes from allies and former enemies alike.

He died from a rare genetic disease known as amyloidosis, according to the Irish Times.

McGuinness died at the Altnagelvin hospital in the northern Irish city of Derry surrounded by his family.

"It is with deep regret and sadness that we have learnt of the death of our friend and comrade Martin McGuinness who passed away in Derry during the night," Sinn Fein said in a statement released early Tuesday.

'A man of the gun who became a figure of reconciliation'

His death came two months after he resigned as Northern Ireland's deputy first minister, citing his health and the breakdown in relations with the rival Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the reasons for his withdrawal from the power-sharing arrangement.

Reacting to the news of his former comrade’s death, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams noted that, "Throughout his life Martin showed great determination, dignity and humility and it was no different during his short illness."

McGuiness was “a passionate republican who worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation and for the re-unification of his country. But above all he loved his family and the people of Derry and he was immensely proud of both,” Adams added.

Reporting from Belfast, FRANCE 24’s Alan Murray said reactions in Northern Ireland to the news of his death are mixed. The face of Irish Republicanism for many during some of the worst moments of three decades of sectarian bloodshed that  killed more than 3,600 people, McGuinness remained a figure of hate for many pro-British Protestants until his death.

“Some Unionist loyalists still see him as an IRA figure who changed. Other Unionists would say he was still an IRA figure. Nationalist people will see him as someone who changed and helped build the peace process. So there will be mixed views,” Murray said.

Butcher’s assistant to Bogside ‘boss’

Born May 23, 1950, he joined the breakaway Provisional IRA faction in his native Londonderry - simply Derry to Irish nationalists - after dropping out of high school and working as an apprentice butcher in the late 1960s. At the time, the Catholic civil rights movement faced increasing conflict with the province's Protestant government and police.

McGuinness was present during the opening salvoes of the conflict as a 20-year-old IRA commander fighting the British army on the streets of his native Londonderry on behalf of a community he said had been denied basic human rights.

McGuinness however always had a public relations flair, appearing unmasked at early Provisional IRA press conferences, which turned him into a hero for nationalists in Northern Ireland.

In 1972 – the bloodiest year in Northern Irish history, which saw the brutal Bloody Sunday massacre in the Bogside – McGuinness, along with Adams, was part of a six-man IRA delegation flown by the British government to London for secret negotiations during a brief truce.

Those talks got nowhere and McGuinness went back on the run until his arrest on New Year's Eve in the Republic of Ireland near a car loaded with 250 pounds (110 kilograms) of explosives and 4,750 rounds of ammunition.

During one of his two Dublin trials for IRA membership, McGuinness declared from the dock he was "a member of the Derry Brigade of the IRA and I'm very, very proud of it."

Overseeing attacks, negotiating peace

McGuinness repeatedly maintained that he left the IRA in 1974. But historians and security analysts agree that he was promoted to the IRA's ruling army council following his November 1974 parole from prison and would have overseen many of the group's most spectacular and divisive attacks.

These included bomb attacks on London tourist spots and the use of "human bombs" - civilian employees like cooks and cleaners at British security installations - who were forced to drive car bombs to their places of work and were detonated by remote control before they could raise the alarm.

His central role in the IRA command was underscored during the 1990s secret negotiations with the British.

An MI6 agent codenamed "The Mountain Climber" met McGuinness several times as part of wider diplomatic efforts that delivered a 1994 IRA truce and, ultimately, multi-party negotiations on Northern Ireland's future and the US-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998.

IRA ‘godfather’ overseeing children’s education

Under the country’s first power-sharing government, formed in 1999, McGuinness was appointed education minister – a sign of minor roles accorded to Sinn Fein members.

Most of the positions in the power-sharing government were given to moderates.

When Sinn Fein nominated McGuinness to be education minister, many Protestant lawmakers recoiled and insisted they would never accept what one called "an IRA godfather" overseeing their children's education.

That first coalition collapsed under the twin weight of Paisley-led obstruction and the IRA's refusal to disarm as the Good Friday pact intended. McGuinness served as the lead liaison with disarmament officials.

After election results vaulted the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein to the top of their communities for the first time, pressure mounted on the IRA to surrender its stockpiled arsenal. This happened in 2005, paving the way for Paisley to bury the hatchet with the group he called "the Sinners".

Unlikely friendship between ‘Chuckle Brothers’

But few observers could have foreseen what happened next: a genuine friendship between First Minister Paisley and Deputy First Minister McGuinness. Belfast wits dubbed them "The Chuckle Brothers" because of their public warmth, an image that quickly eroded Protestant support for Paisley and forced him out as Democratic Unionist chief within the year.

McGuinness maintained more businesslike relations with Paisley's frosty successor, Peter Robinson. Together they met Queen Elizabeth II for a historic 2012 handshake in Belfast and were guests of honor at Windsor Castle two years later.

All the while, McGuinness expressed newfound support for the police as they faced attacks from IRA splinter groups -- a U-turn that exposed McGuinness and his relatives to death threats in their Derry home.

His relations with the newest Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, turned sour with surprising speed. When Foster rebuffed Sinn Fein's demands to step aside, McGuinness resigned in January, toppling power-sharing in the process.

"Over the last 10 years I have worked with DUP leaders and reached out to unionists on the basis of equality, respect and reconciliation," a frail, weak-voiced McGuinness said as he resigned as deputy first minister. "Today is the right time to call a halt to the DUP's arrogance."

McGuinness is survived by his wife, Bernadette, two daughters and two sons.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)


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