McGuinness: IRA leader turned peacemaker

Man of steel: McGuinness spent ten years as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister.

It was an extraordinary personal journey. Martin McGuinness went from being a militant IRA commander to a “courageous” peacemaker. Now he has died aged 66. How should he be remembered?

Martin McGuinness was a teenager when “discrimination and murder” shocked him into joining the IRA in the late 1960s. The terrorist group believed in using violence to demand an independent, united Ireland. It was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians. As a young man, McGuinness was made second-in-command in his home town, and quickly rose up the ranks.

But when he died yesterday morning, tributes came flooding in from the highest echelons of British politics. The prime minister, Theresa May, said he made an “essential and historic contribution” to Northern Ireland. Former prime minister Tony Blair said that people could draw “inspiration” from his life.

Why? Because McGuinness eventually made a crucial decision to leave violence behind, and to work for peace. He became heavily involved with the republican political party Sinn Fein. He was then a chief negotiator during the peace process which eventually led to the Good Friday agreement in 1998. Blair, prime minister at the time, said yesterday that it was right to remember the role McGuinness played “in resolving one of the great conflicts in the world”.

The agreement put an end to 30 years of violence known as The Troubles. It created a devolved government in Northern Ireland, where power is shared between former enemies — including McGuinness, who was deputy first minister until January.

His journey is one of the “most extraordinary ever” said the politics professor Jon Tonge yesterday. In 2012 he met and shook hands with the queen, whose cousin was killed by the IRA. He formed jovial friendships with unionist politicians he had once seen as his enemies. And although he never gave up on his dream of a united Ireland, he denounced violence as a means to getting there. “My war is over,” he said recently.

But some never forgave him. Many family members of IRA victims still see him as a terrorist who never atoned for his past. The Conservative peer Lord Tebbit, whose wife was injured in an attack, described him as a “coward”.

Peace and reconciliation

McGuinness should be admired for his pragmatic role as a peacemaker, say some. He was involved in some terrible acts. But it was incredibly brave to persuade the IRA to embrace a political resolution to Ireland’s division; he put his own life at risk to do so. It takes a great leader to move people away from violence.

Wrong — a great leader would never have resorted to violence in the first place, say others. McGuinness had blood on his hands, and he was never properly tried for the deaths that occurred on his watch, or possibly even by his own hand. Nothing he did later in life can ever make up for the pain caused by those earlier years.

You Decide

  1. Does the second half of Martin McGuinness’s life atone for the first?
  2. Can political violence ever be justified?


  1. What makes a “great leader”? As a class, brainstorm 10 qualities you think leaders should have. Then discuss: did McGuinness fit the bill?
  2. Write a letter to a Northern Irish person living at the height of the violence in the 1980s. Explain what has happened to the country since.

Some People Say...

“There is no point in having principles if you cannot get anything done.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Martin McGuinness was a member of the provisional IRA and one of its commanders. He was caught in a car with 110kg of explosives and 5,000 rounds of ammunition in 1973, for which he spent six months in prison. He says he left the IRA in 1974 to focus on politics.
What don’t we know?
How many people he personally killed, or ordered the killings of. It is also not known how far he was involved with the IRA during the late 1970s and the 1980s, its most violent era — although he was certainly still influential with the group.
What do people believe?
That he had a moral responsibility for many of the deaths caused by the IRA, including the years after he says he left. However, many also believe that the peace process would not have been so successful without him.

Word Watch

The Irish Republican Army was first established in 1917. It has experienced splits in its history and still exists in different factions.
Over 3,600 people, including over 2,000 civilians, were killed during The Troubles. Some of these were killed by unionists and the security forces.
Believing in a united Ireland separate from the UK. Historically Catholic.
Sinn Fein
The political party was founded in 1905 and has historically associated with the IRA. Gerry Adams, party president since 1983, was a close friend of McGuinness.
Good Friday agreement
The agreement was signed in 1997 and approved in referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Lord Mountbatten was killed by a bomb while in his boat in 1979. Two teenagers were also killed in the blast, including his grandson.
Believing that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK. Historically Protestant.
Lord Tebbit
The IRA bombed a Conservative Party conference hotel in 1984, in which Tebbit was staying with his wife. Five people died, including an MP, and 31 were injured.

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