‘Ireland today has lost a great leader’ – Tributes pour in for Former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Tributes are pouring in for former deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness.

Mr McGuinness (66) died early this morning at Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital with his family by his bedside.

Political leaders from both side of the border have remembered him as a man who embarked on a “remarkable journey” from his days as an IRA commander to an architect of peace in Northern Ireland.

He had been diagnosed with a rare heart disease in December.

In January Mr McGuinness stepped down as deputy First Minister amid the so-called cash-for-ash scandal which saw DUP leader Arlene Foster come under mounting pressure to resign.

Mr McGuinness’s resignation triggered a snap election which changed the landscape in Stormont.

Before stepping down he was forced to withdraw from an official trip alongside Ms Foster on medical advice.

Delivering his farewell speech he looked pale and gaunt.

Mr McGuinness emerged as one of the major player’s in Northern Ireland’s peace process and became Sinn Fein’s most recognisable face after Gerry Adams.

Mr Guinness was appointed Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland on May 8 2007, with DUP leader Ian Paisley becoming First Minister, following the St Andrews Agreement and the Assembly election.

In June 2008 he was reappointed as Deputy First Minister to serve alongside Peter Robinson, who succeeded Mr Paisley as First Minister.

Mr McGuinness has always acknowledged his IRA past.

In 1972, at the age of 21, he was second-in-command of the IRA in Derry, a position he held at the time of Bloody Sunday, when 14 civil rights protesters were killed in the city by soldiers with the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment.

The following year he was convicted by the Republic of Ireland’s Special Criminal Court after being arrested near a car containing explosives and ammunition.

After his release, and another conviction in the Republic for IRA membership, he became increasingly prominent in Sinn Féin and was first elected to parliament in 1982.

He is survived by his wife Bernie, and their four children.

Tributes

Sinn Féin’s President Gerry Adams led tributes to Mr McGuinness this morning.

Speaking on RTÉ’S Radio One’s Morning Ireland he reflected on the passing of his colleague.

“We wouldn’t be where we are without him,” he said.

“Martin led the IRA when there was a war but Martin led the IRA into peace… he genuinely believed in reconciliation, even when it made people uncomfortable,” he added.

“I am very sad this morning… he will be missed,” he added.

Asked to reflect on his journey from militant republican to a broker of peace he said:

“It was a long time in the making.

“Martin McGuinness never went to war, it came to him. It came to his streets.. his community,” he added.

In an earlier statement he 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 re-unification of his country.  But above all he loved his family and the people of Derry and he was immensely proud of both.”

President Michael D Higgins has remembered his ” immense contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland”.

“A contribution which has rightly been recognised across all shades of opinion,” he said.

“As a political colleague of many years, and having participated together in the Presidential election campaign of 2011 that brought us all over Ireland, Sabina and I have appreciated both Martin McGuinness’ warmth and his unfailing courtesy.”

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has also released a statement to pay tribute to Mr McGuinness.

“Martin will always be remembered for the remarkable political journey that he undertook in his lifetime.  Not only did Martin come to believe that peace must prevail, he committed himself to working tirelessly to that end.

“Martin was one of the chief architects of the Good Friday Agreement and he worked resolutely in the years that followed it in pursuit of its full implementation.  I got to know Martin well in recent years, including through our working together in the North South Ministerial Council.  His commitment to securing enduring peace and prosperity for all of the people of Northern Ireland was unwavering throughout this time.   He strove to make Northern Ireland a better place for everyone, regardless of background or tradition. 

“Above all, today is an especially sad day for Martin’s family – his wife Bernie, and his children – and for the people of Derry, who held a special place in Martin’s heart.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said Martin McGuinness “played a defining role in leading the Republican movement away from violence”,

“While I can never condone the path he took in the earlier part of his life, Martin McGuinness ultimately played a defining role in leading the Republican movement away from violence,” she said in a statement.

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

“While we certainly didn’t always see eye to eye, even in later years, as deputy first minister for nearly a decade he was one of the pioneers of implementing cross-community power-sharing in Northern Ireland. He understood both its fragility and its precious significance and played a vital part in helping to find a way through many difficult moments.

“At the heart of it all was his profound optimism for the future of Northern Ireland – and I believe we should all hold fast to that optimism today.”

Former PM Tony Blair, who was in Number 10 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 said he will remember Mr McGuinness with “gratitude”.

He said: “I grew up watching and hearing about the Martin McGuinness who was a leading member of the IRA engaged in armed struggle.

“I came to know the Martin McGuinness who set aside that armed struggle in favour of making peace. There will be some who cannot forget the bitter legacy of the war. And for those who lost loved ones in it that is completely understandable.

“But for those of us able finally to bring about the Northern Ireland peace agreement, we know we could never have done it without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future.”

Mr Blair said he got to know the Sinn Fein politician well during the “arduous” negotiations and “by the time that extraordinary day arrived in 2007 after almost a decade of hard work where we could witness the – to my generation – incredible sight of he and Ian Paisley sitting down together in government, the transition of Martin to reconciliator was complete”.

The former prime minister said “whatever the past, the Martin I knew was a thoughtful, reflective and committed individual”, adding that he showed “no shortage of determined opposition to those who wanted to carry on the war”.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern also expressed his condolences for Mr McGuinness’s family.

“Ireland today has lost a great leader. It is with deep regret and sorrow that I have learned of the death of the former deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. I wish to express my sincere sympathy to his wife Bernie, his extended family, and all those close to him,” he said in a statment.

“Martin McGuinness was a pivotal figure in Irish republicanism for over 40 years.  He made a journey, if not without historical precedent, then certainly without equal in modern Ireland. It began for a very young man in pursuit of violent struggle. It ended only weeks before his death, after years in office, spent strengthening the peace he worked for and to which his leadership was essential.”

“He was a critical part of changing the course of history toward the path of peace in Northern Ireland,” he added.

DUP leader Arlene Foster also paid tribute to the Sinn Féin stalwart.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster said his death “will come as a shock to many people”.

“History will record differing views and opinions on the role of 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 said.

“He served the people of Northern Ireland as deputy first minister for nearly a decade and was pivotal in bringing the republican movement towards a position of using peaceful and democratic means.

“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.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, speaking to RTE’s Morning Ireland programme, said Mr McGuinness was a man who had travelled a large journey with great conviction:

“We’ve lost somebody who embarked on a really significant personal journey from militant republican to a Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland and who made a great contribution to the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

“I’d like to acknowledge his journey and I’d like to acknowledge his contribution to peace and particularly his contribution over recent years and the manner in which he always showed he a willingness to stretch himself in contribution to peace and stability,” he added.

On a personal level he also got to know Mr McGuinness and said he spoke about the threats that the former IRA commander had to withstand, in his pursuit of peace he said.

The Fine Gael TD acknowledged there is much about Mr McGuinness that people may never know, but he was keen to remember him as an “architect of peace”.

Independent Dublin City Councillor and former Lord Mayor of Dublin Christy Burke today paid tribute to Martin McGuinness, saying he was a “true son of Ireland”.

“I was saddened this morning to hear that Martin had passed away. He was an honest broker, a soldier and a peacemaker and he will be greatly missed,” he said.

“He was full of dignity and integrity. Ireland has lost a true son. Martin was a passionate individual about whatever it was he put his hand and heart to,” he added.

Christy Burke is a Republican who sided with the IRA in the 1970 split in Sinn Fein and the IRA and served two terms in Portlaoise Prison on IRA membership charges in the 1970s.

 Additional reporting by Press Association

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