Martin McGuinness once said that there were four key moments throughout his life that turned him into a Republican. His tumultuous road began in Derry in the October of 1968, the then 18 year old McGuinness witnessed the Royal Ulster Constabulary violently beating marchers in Duke Street. McGuinness was overcome with what he saw and spent the night attacking the police with whatever he could his hands upon, be it stones or firebombs.
But the moment that hit him most came on July 8th 1971 when he saw police removing the dying body of Dessie Beattie from a car not far from his home. This was the first time the British army had used lead bullets in Northern Island. Martin McGuinness would say that was the moment that stayed with him the most, it shocked him, it scared him to the core, and it set him upon the rocky road that would take him to the top of the IRA.
To him this was a war plain and simple, and if it was a war it should be fought like one, with armies opposing armies. Diplomatic conclusions to the war were available through the Social Democratic and Labour parties but he chose to ignore them. He did not believe anything would be achieved that way. He instead vowed to fight until the last British soldier was driven from the land and Ireland could finally became a united socialist republic.
From 1976 McGuinness controlled the Irish Republican Army, he groomed its ranks of volunteers, organised its campaigns of terror, and upgraded its arsenal of weapons from fertiliser bombs to SAM missiles obtained from Libya. He would also play the role of hard-man in back channel discussions with the British government.
By 1997 though there had been a fundamental change in the former IRA commander. This former hard-core Republican was now the minister of education in the first ever Unionist-Republican power sharing assembly in Northern Island. He may have still been listed on the Army Council of the IRA but the former bomb throwing commander was now more concerned with his proposal to scrap the 11-plus exam, which interestingly he had failed as a child.
Ten years later that former stone slinging soldier now found himself as the Deputy First Minister of Northern Island under Ian Paisley, a die-hard Unionist. This mix of vehement Republican and steadfast Unionist could have made for an explosive mix of contradictions and opinions. Yet they formed an unlikely friendship, often seen laughing together and earning themselves the nickname ‘the chuckle brothers’. And in September 2014, after the death of Ian Paisley Martin McGuinness spoke about his own time adversary turned friend.
“Despite our differences, I found him to be a charismatic and powerful personality. He always treated me and those who worked with me with respect and courtesy. The peace process and I have lost a friend.” – Martin McGuinness on Ian Paisley
In the same year that he lost his friend McGuinness also made one of the biggest shows of desiring peace when he shook the hand of Queen Elizabeth, a figure he had spent so long trying to rid from Northern Ireland. People around the country were surprised by this change.
Yet to Martin McGuinness there was no change within him. In 2017 he was as committed to being a Republican as he was in 1968. He wanted nothing more than to unite the North and South of Ireland into one country. Yet after years of embracing violence as a means to end Catholic persecution, and after using threats of bloodshed or the refusal to decommission arms when he didn’t get his way in the peace process, he finally learnt violence was getting him nowhere. Like the IRA he vowed to never give up his dream of a united Ireland, he just chose the path of politics.
It seems that the violence committed within the IRA came to haunt its one time commander. He didn’t like to be labelled as a member of the paramilitary organisation, instead preferring the term “republican activist in Free Derry”. He openly expressed his horror at the atrocities caused by the group, often sliding such discussions towards the victims on both sides of such actions. While he directed terror operations he didn’t participate himself, instead he became the outward face of the organisation, being told that “with the blue eyes and red curly hair he looked like a cherub, not a terrorist.” He became the voice for thousands and that didn’t change when he turned to diplomacy.
The chief usefulness of McGuinness was his undeniable power within the IRA, regardless of how much he tried to deny this power and influence existed. He trained many within the organisation, he streamlined its leadership, and exerted iron influence over its rank and file. Eventually he was able to convince the group of the benefit of laying down their arms and working through the groups political arm, Sinn Fein. He reveled in Sinn Fein, finding a new medium with which to pursue his desires for the people of Northern Ireland, a peaceful and unified Republic.
He never managed to reach his ultimate desire but with his work at Stormont he was able to bring a relative peace to the troubled lands of Northern Ireland and will no doubt be missed by many.