Peacemaker and Terrorist, Martin McGuinness Is Dead at 66

The former IRA terrorist died, in the eyes of many, as a peacemaking statesman. But bitterness still lingers.

© Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters

LONDON—He was a terror commander who would go on to shake hands with the queen.

Martin McGuinness—the man who embodied Northern Ireland’s transformation from hatred and terrorism to fragile peace and cautious optimism—has died at the age of 66.

McGuinness was an IRA streetfighter who rose to lead the paramilitary organization before donning a suit and signing a 1998 peace deal which still stands today.

Epoch-defining to the end, his last political act was to bring down the Northern Irish government earlier this year. His resignation as deputy first minister forced a snap election and brought to an end one of the most tumultuous careers in British and Irish history.

McGuinness was already an experienced terrorist at the age of 22 when he made his first attempt at international diplomacy, flying to London—alongside comrade Gerry Adams—for secret talks with the British government in 1972.

It would take more than a quarter of a century of violence and failed negotiations before the Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed at Stormont Castle on April 10, 1998. That deal established a power-sharing arrangement that would see Republicans and Unionists rule the province together while paramilitary groups on both sides decommissioned their weapons.

Within a decade, McGuinness would be serving as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

He struck up an unlikely camaraderie with First Minister Ian Paisley—a fierce advocate of loyalty to Britain. Known as “Dr. No,” Paisley had long been reluctant to share power with McGuinness’s Republican party, Sinn Fein.

In the end, the two were so often seen laughing and joking together that they came to be called “the Chuckle Brothers.” For some in Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, the close friendship with a self-confessed former terrorist was a step too far in the peace process, and Paisley was eventually forced out of office.

That tension between McGuinness as peacemaker and McGuinness as terror commander spilled over again Tuesday morning as news emerged of his death after a short illness—he was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition at the end of last year.

British Prime Minister Theresa May offered a qualified tribute. “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 doing so, he made an essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace.”

Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny focused on his later years. “Not only did Martin come to believe that peace must prevail, he committed himself to working tirelessly to that end,” he said. “He strove to make Northern Ireland a better place for everyone, regardless of background or tradition.”

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Others claimed it was wrong to gloss over McGuinness’s past.

Lord Tebbit, a Conservative Party firebrand, was staying in Brighton’s Grand Hotel during the Conservative Party conference in 1984 when it was devastated by an IRA bomb. Five people were killed and Tebbit’s wife, Margaret, was paralyzed.

The member of the House of Lords claimed McGuinness had only turned to peace because he knew the IRA was close to collapse.

“He then sought to save his own skin and he knew that it was likely he would be charged before long with several murders which he had personally committed,” Lord Tebbit said. “He claimed to be a Roman Catholic. I hope that his beliefs turn out to be true and he’ll be parked in a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of hell for the rest of eternity.”

When the Labour Party swept to power in 1997, Tony Blair redoubled London’s determination to reach a peace deal in Northern Ireland. “I came to know the Martin McGuinness who set aside that armed struggle in favor 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,” said Blair.

“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.”

The peace deal—brokered by U.S. Senator George Mitchell—was an historic shift in relations between the British, Irish, and Northern Irish.

That fundamental realignment was completed in 2012 during an extraordinary meeting between McGuinness and the Queen. A handshake between the British monarch and an avowed Republican—who had taken up arms against what he saw as the tyranny of British rule—marked a definitive end to more than a century of brutality and conflict.