Northern Ireland political leader Martin McGuinness dies at 66

IMAGE: CNS photo/Clodagh Kilcoyne, Reuters

By Michael Kelly

DUBLIN (CNS) — Martin
McGuinness, 66, who went from being a paramilitary leader to laying the
foundations for peace in Northern Ireland, died March 21. McGuinness was
diagnosed with a rare heart condition in December and died in a hospital in Londonderry,
Northern Ireland, surrounded by his family.

The Londonderry in which
McGuinness grew up was marked by deprivation and gerrymandering that ensured
the majority Catholic community in the city was never able to exercise
political influence. Discrimination in employment, housing and education was

McGuinness was an early activist
in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, formed in the late 1960s to
work for equal rights for Catholics. However, he later joined the Irish
Republican Army, which was leading an armed insurrection against British rule
in Northern Ireland. The organization was classified as a terrorist group by the
British and Irish governments and successive U.S. administrations. In 1973, McGuinness
was imprisoned for six months for terrorism-related activates and later claimed
he resigned from the IRA the following year.

In the 1970s, he became a key
figure in Sinn Fein, the political wing of Irish republicans opposed to British
rule in Northern Ireland. He is credited with playing a key role in convincing
the IRA to call a cease-fire in 1994 and embrace purely peaceful means. In the
political talks that followed, he was named by Sinn Fein as the party’s chief
negotiator. Politicians said his military background in the IRA was
instrumental in convincing militant republicans to keep faith in the peace
process, even when they thought too many concessions were being made.

He was a signatory to the 1998
Good Friday Agreement, which established the Catholic-Protestant power-sharing
government in Northern Ireland, and was subsequently appointed minister for education.
In 2007, he was appointed deputy first minister of Northern Ireland —
effectively a joint prime minister role with the Rev. Ian Paisley, the leading
figure within political Protestantism.

The partnership of the two
former political foes became a symbol of how far Northern
Ireland had traveled from the days of sectarian violence. McGuinness worked
closely with Rev. Paisley’s successor as first minister, Peter Robinson.
However, when Robinson was replaced by Arlene Foster in 2016, relations turned
sour, and McGuinness resigned in January of this year.

His death came as political
leaders scrambled to meet a March 27 deadline to make a new deal to
re-establish the power-sharing government before the British government
intervenes to rule Northern Ireland directly from London.

From a traditional Catholic
background, McGuinness was private about his faith but always described himself
as a believing Catholic and was a weekly Mass-goer. However, his stance in
favor of Sinn Fein’s support for same-sex marriage and more liberal laws on
abortion drew criticism from within the Catholic community and pro-life

Leading tributes to McGuinness,
Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Northern Ireland — president of the Irish
bishops’ conference — expressed the hope that a new political deal would be a
fitting tribute to McGuinness’ legacy.

The archbishop, who also grew
up in Londonderry, said he would “remember Martin as someone who chose
personally to leave behind the path of violence and to walk instead along the
more challenging path of peace and reconciliation.”

“As a leader, he was
courageous and took risks in order to bring others with him, convincing them
that goals could be achieved by politics and persuasion. He channeled his many
gifts into creating and sustaining the peace process, of which he was one of
the key architects,” he said.

Archbishop Martin described McGuinness
“a man of prayer, and I am personally grateful for his good wishes and
encouragement to me, as a fellow Derry man, in my own vocation.”

Father Joe McVeigh, a priest
based in Northern Ireland who considered McGuinness a close personal friend,
told Catholic News Service that the politician was “one of the people
mainly responsible for taking the gun out of Irish politics.”

The priest said McGuinness would
“be forever remembered for his key role in building the peace after almost
30 years of violent conflict, when many had almost despaired of ever finding a
peaceful way forward. … He remained firm in his republican belief in a
reunified Ireland, but he always showed respect to those who differed.”

Irish President Michael D. Higgins
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.”

“His death leaves a gap
that will be difficult to fill,” the president said.

British Prime Minister Theresa
May said McGuinness played a key role in ending 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.
In doing so, he made an essential and historic contribution to the
extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace,” she

– – –

Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

Original Article