Northern Ireland

From Terrorist to Pragmatic Peacemaker: The Evolution of Martin McGuinness

Northern Ireland's longest-serving Deputy First Minister will be mourned by more than just his supporters.
March 21, 2017, 5:44pm

(Top photo: Martin McGuinness in 2016. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images)

It is often said that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, but rare is it to see the two combined so succinctly in one person.

McGuinness, dead today at 66, was not a man easily categorised. He was a teenage radical, a paramilitary leader, a convicted terrorist, a skilled negotiator, a peacemaker, a power sharer and a statesman. That his death has been met with heartfelt tributes from the enemies he dedicated his life to defeating – messages from the Queen and kind words from the highest echelons of Unionism – while maintaining widespread respect within the Republican community speaks to how much impact he had on the last 50 years of history in Northern Ireland.


To understand McGuinness' political development, it is important to consider the social situation from which he emerged. In the 1960s Derry of McGuinness' youth, Catholics could not vote equally with Protestants, they were denied access to housing and the unemployment rate in the community stood at three times that of Protestants. Martin McGuinness' first experience of the job market was being refused a mechanic's job because he was a Catholic.

Derry was around 60 percent Catholic, but Protestants held every office of government. Policing was carried out by the Royal Ulster Constabulary – 90 percent Protestant – and the B-Specials, to which it was "almost if not wholly impossible for a Roman Catholic recruit to be accepted". The sense of discrimination was powerful. The civil rights movement that began the process that became The Troubles were not asking for a united Ireland; they were asking to be treated the same as other British people.

The reaction from the British state – punitive measures rather than reform – was as responsible as anything for the explosion of the IRA in the early 1970s. This was where Martin McGuinness first entered the public sphere. When British soldiers killed 14 civil rights protesters in cold blood in 1972, McGuinness was already the second in command in the city at the age of just 21.

"McGuinness' conversion from IRA leader to peacemaker was hardly damascene – it was both an acceptance of the reality of conflict and a vindication of his goals."


He was arrested and served time in the Republic of Ireland for IRA membership, and was towards the top of the IRA throughout the worst excesses of the conflict: the sectarian killings, the murder of informants and the countless bombings. His death has brought forward a litany of testimonies from families of IRA victims who consider him little more than a terrorist. That legacy of violence cannot be forgotten.

Later, McGuinness met covertly with the British state and led Sinn Fein's delegation in discussions, resulting in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the Troubles.

The IRA required the support of the nationalist population for legitimacy, support that was wavering in communities tired of war. It had known for years that it could not defeat the British militarily, but managed to bring about a peace that secured the rights that had been won in conflict.

The rebuilding after the peace process brought a new set of troubles. Many Republicans saw McGuinness as having conceded to the British, while unionists saw in him nothing more than the terrorist of old. His candid admission in 2001 that he had been an IRA member did much to begin the reconciliation project. His attitude towards unionists – personable and friendly – was vital in convincing them that he was taking peace and power-sharing seriously. Indeed, his positive demeanour towards political opponents led to him and loyalist Ian Paisley being dubbed "The Chuckle Brothers" by the media. If McGuinness and Paisley could get on, the logic went, then surely everyone else could make a fist of it too.

McGuinness did the dirty work for many in Sinn Fein in the new Northern Ireland. He was the first leader to meet with Ian Paisley, and in 2007 became Deputy First Minister, precipitating a cordial, if awkward, meeting with the Queen in 2012. Only McGuinness or Gerry Adams would have had the cachet within their own community to take these steps and retain credibility.

Martin McGuinness did not contest the most recent election in Northern Ireland, citing ill-health, but the results were spectacular for Sinn Fein (and the other nationalist party, the SDLP). At the start of power-sharing in 1997, Sinn Fein did not recognise the authority of the police and IRA decommissioning had not begun. Now, for the first time since the Parliament was devolved to Stormont, unionists were not the majority, an unthinkable scenario a few decades ago. McGuinness will be mourned most deeply in his native Bogside, but that he will be remembered at all fondly elsewhere is testament to his capacity to embrace peace.