Martin McGuinness, the former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, died Tuesday at the age of 66. Leading figures across the political divide have paid tribute to his pivotal role in bringing about peace in the country. However one former victim of IRA violence called McGuinness a “coward,” protesting that his previous life as head of the IRA has been seemingly forgotten and forgiven.
The death of McGuinness in the early hours of Tuesday in Altnagelvin hospital was confirmed by his long-time friend and president of the political party Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, who called him “a very straightforward man.” Adams told RTE Radio 1’s Morning Ireland show: “Martin led the IRA when there was a war, but he led the IRA into peace.”
Warm tributes have been paid to McGuinness from politicians of all hues. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said she could “never condone the path he took in the earlier part of his life,” but added that McGuinness “ultimately played a defining role in leading the republican movement away from violence.”
Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny said McGuinness would 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.”
Kyle Paisley, the son of the late Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley, whose bitter hatred of Republicans morphed into a surprisingly close friendship with McGuinness in later years, also responded to the news:
The current DUP leader Arlene Foster, said: “He was pivotal in bringing the republican movement towards a position of using peaceful and democratic means.”
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who worked with McGuinness on the peace process, said that the deal could not have been achieved without his “leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future.” Blair added that he understood there would be some who “cannot forget the bitter legacy of the war.”
One of those is Lord Tebbit, a former MP whose wife was paralyzed when the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative party conference in 1984. In a statement to the Press Association, Tebbit said: I’m just pleased that the world is a sweeter and cleaner place now. He was not only a multi-murderer, he was a coward.”
The former Conservative party chairman added: “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.”
Others highlighting McGuinness’s controversial past included Austin Stack, spokesperson for the Independent Victims and Survivors Coalition, whose father was killed by the IRA in 1984. Stack said McGuinness’s failure to admit his role in IRA killings — both directly and indirectly — should not be forgotten. “This is the real legacy of Martin McGuinness, he took what he knew about each of these cases to his grave. We should look at his real legacy in its totality.”
McGuinness had been diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare genetic disease caused by deposits of abnormal protein in his tissues and organs. In January McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister, citing the scandal surrounding the so-called “Cash for Ash” renewable energy incentive scheme as his reason for doing so. Sinn Féin’s failure to nominate an immediate replacement led to a snap election in Northern Ireland earlier this month, with Sinn Féin making considerable gains.
The Irish President Michael D. Higgins said McGuinness’s death “leaves a gap that will be difficult to fill” in Northern Irish politics. At present, that gap has yet to be filled.
The Northern Irish Assembly is currently in limbo as no new power-sharing agreement has been reached, and the March 27 deadline for finding a solution creeps ever closer. If no deal is achieved between McGuinness’s successor Michelle O’Neill and DUP leader Foster, then another election will be held, with the prospect of a return to direct rule from Westminster a real possibility.