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Mixed emotions follow death of former Deputy First Minister

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Mixed emotions follow death of former Deputy First Minister thumbnailFormer Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.

FORMER Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has died at the age of 66, bringing tributes, but also generating mixed emotions relating to his earlier life as a self-confessed member of the IRA Army Council.

The Sinn Féin man passed away at Altnagelvin Hospital. He had been suffering from ill-health in recent months. News of his death was confirmed in a statement issued by the party in the early hours of yesterday (Tuesday).

Condolences have been offered to his family from across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland and further afield. Tributes have also been paid to Mr McGuinness for his influential role in the Peace Process.

Historically one of Northern Ireland's most controversial political figures, news of his death, however, has also evoked mixed emotions for others, including victims of republican violence and their families.

A former IRA leader turned peacemaker, he was one of the central figures in the formation of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998. He became Deputy First Minister of the devolved government in 2007 alongside the then DUP leader, the late Ian Paisley with whom he developed an unlikely alliance. He served in the role for nearly a decade.

He also worked along with Mr Paisley's successors Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster but stood down from his post in January in protest against the DUP's handling of the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). His resignation triggered a snap Assembly election earlier this month, but Mr McGuinness did not seek re-election on health grounds.

His involvement with the IRA during the violent and turbulent times of 'the Troubles' was one that he never denied but Mr McGuinness later committed himself to politics and is regarded as the man who played a defining role in moving republicans away from violence.

In recent years, among the watershed moments during his time in government was the famous handshake with Queen Elizabeth II who he then met with on other occasions.

"My war is over. My job as a political leader is to prevent that war and I feel very passionate about it," he said in an interview with the BBC a few years ago.

Party President Gerry Adams said: "He 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."

Sinn Féin's Stormont leader, Michelle O'Neill, who succeeded Mr McGuinness following his resignation said he was a "giant of Irish politics".

Sinn Féin colleagues from across the district have also paid tribute to him. Strabane-based MLA., Michaela Boyle, said: "He will be sorely missed by everyone who knew him. Throughout his life, Martin showed great determination, dignity and humility. We are immensely proud of everything he did for Ireland. I will never forget him."

Castlederg-based councillor, Kieran McGuire, said he was 'devastated' by the news of of Mr McGuinness' passing: "He was a true leader who gave so much for this country of ours. An inspirational man and a proud son of Ireland."

Unionist leaders have also expressed their condolences on his death and acknowledged his contribution to the Peace Process, but said many within the unionist community could not forget his past.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said: "History will record differing views and opinions on the role Martin McGuinness played throughout the recent and not so recent past, but history will also show that his contribution to the political and peace process was significant."

She added: "While our differing backgrounds and life experiences inevitably meant there was much to separate us, we shared a deep desire to see the devolved institutions working to achieve positive results for everyone.  I know that he believed that the institutions were the basis for building stability."

Former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said his death was "a very challenging day for victims of the Troubles".

"I believe no one needed to die to get Northern Ireland to where it is today. Clearly Martin McGuinness very actively disagreed with that analysis, but I also accept in his later years he was on a journey to create change through politics, becoming a pivotal figure at Stormont," he added.

SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, described his death a "significant moment in the history of this island" adding: "History will record his political career as a journey - one born in a tradition of violence but, in a testament to Martin's character, that arrived at his true calling in politics, people and the art of persuasion."

TUV leader, Jim Allister, said his thoughts remained with the victims of IRA violence: "....he lived many more decades than most of his victims. Sadly, Mr McGuinness thought it appropriate not just to sanction and commit murder but to take those dark secrets to his grave, denying truth and justice to many IRA victims.

"So, today my primary thoughts are with the many victims of the IRA who never reached the age of 66. Of men and women who never got to see their grandchildren because their lives were cut short by murderous republicanism. Of children stolen from their parents and grandparents by the organisation in which McGuinness was a commander."

Omagh UUP councillor, Bert Wilson, echoed those sentiments and the comments of Lord Norman Tebbit who said the former IRA man was a "coward" and believed he only transitioned to peaceful means because he feared being arrested and charged with a "number of murders which he had personally committed".

The Peer was in Brighton's Grand Hotel when the IRA bombed the building during the Conservative Party Conference in 1984 and killed five people. Lord Tebbit's wife, Margaret, was seriously injured during the attack.

Cllr Wilson said: "There are many victims in graveyards across West Tyrone (because of IRA violence). All those families, to me, are the peacemakers and they are the people who have to be remembered because they gave their lives for peace.

"I listened to Lord Tebbit on the television when he stated Martin McGuinness chose the 'coward's way out' and went down the Peace Process path. He had an option but the people lying in graves in Castlederg, Sixmilecross and other areas didn't have a choice. It's those people who I am thinking of now. I feel very sorry for them and to see Martin McGuinness now being highlighted as a peacemaker and somebody special to me is totally wrong and insulting to victims.

"I served on the security forces myself and drove a school bus for 16 years when drivers were being murdered. I know the worry that my wife and family went through at that time. There was no sympathy then (for those people) - nor is there any now," he said.

British Prime Minister, Theresa May, said that whilst she did not "condone the path he took in the earlier part of his life", Martin McGuinness played a "defining role" in leading republicans from violence.

"In doing so, he made an essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace."

Members of the Paisley family have also paid their respects with Ian Paisley Jr saying: "It's not how you start your life, it's how you finish your life. And most people will be thankful that Martin McGuinness finished his life a lot better than it could have been."

Former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Irish President Michael D Higgins, Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire, PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton were among many others who have also paid tributes to the veteran politician.

In a statement, the DUP Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council, Alderman Hilary McClintock described Mr McGuinness as a "towering figure in Northern Ireland in general and in the city of Londonderry in particular."

She added: "Whilst there will continue to be a diverse range of opinions on Mr McGuinness' contribution to society over his lifetime it is clear that he had a passion for the city and the wider North West area. In recent years his contribution helped build on the relative peace we now enjoy."

Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Ken Good, acknowledged that the Sinn Féin man's death has been divisive for some, but said his choices in later life had been crucial to the Peace Process.

"There are many in this community who still find it difficult to come to terms with his past involvement in the IRA, and the pain inflicted by that organisation. However, in recent years, Martin McGuinness dedicated himself to constitutional politics and to the peace process. With considerable charisma and a willingness to reach out to others, he proved himself an adept and courageous political leader. He challenged his own community and others, taking undeniable risks for the greater good and developing relationships that would previously have been considered most unlikely," he said.

Mr McGuinness' funeral is due to take place tomorrow afternoon (Thursday) at St Columba's Church Longtower in his native city. He is survived by his wife, Bernie, his children Grainne, Fionnuala, Fiachra and Emmet, his grandchildren and wider family circle.

 

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