Martin McGuinness – a leader and peacemaker

Martin McGuinness – a leader and peacemaker
Fr Joe McVeigh
He did more than most to take the gun out of Irish politics, writes Fr Joe McVeigh

Martin McGuinness will 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 will also be remembered for his close friendship with Dr Ian Paisley in the power-sharing Executive established under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

As a politician, his policy was always to show respect for those who were his political opponents. He remained firm in his republican belief in a reunified Ireland – but he always showed respect to those who differed.

He epitomised this in his attitude to Dr Paisley and to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. In this regard, he was, I believe, inspired by the example of African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

Martin was very critical of those who, after the ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement, continued to use violence. This brought him into conflict with those, some of them former members of Sinn Féin, who never accepted the 1998 Agreement.

Martin became aware of his Irish identity from an early age and was conscious of the disastrous effects of partition and one-party unionist rule in his home city of Derry.

He was born in the Bogside where there was very high unemployment and deprivation. When the British reacted militarily to the civil rights campaign, Martin, like many others of his generation, joined the Provisional IRA to defend his people in the Bogside.

The event which had the biggest impact on him as a youth was Bloody Sunday in January 1972 when 13 unarmed civilians were shot dead by members of the British Parachute regiment. After that, he emerged as the leading republican in Derry and in 1973, along with Gerry Adams and others he was brought to London to engage in talks with the British government that might lead to a cessation of violence. Sadly, those talks came to nothing.

Martin McGuinness was a proud Derry man with strong Donegal connections. His mother hailed from near Buncrana and he loved going there in his youth.

He enjoyed fishing and walking. Martin always dressed impeccably.

He had a striking resemblance to one Art Garfunkel. He was six foot plus tall and of slim build, athletic-looking and walked with a swagger. People were attracted to him – young working-class people especially.

Wherever he went there was a buzz as when he went around the country canvassing in the presidential election campaign in 2011.

The Martin McGuinness I knew was humble, personable and courageous.

I remember seeing him in Milltown Cemetery the day that the loyalist fanatic Michael Stone threw hand grenades into the mourners killing a number of people. Martin took charge and restored calm to a panicked crowd that day.

I was often amazed at his skill and composure in answering difficult questions on radio and television. He was both intelligent and articulate.

Martin McGuinness was one of the people mainly responsible for taking the gun out of Irish politics. He was a born leader. People looked up to him and trusted him. He was the man who pointed to a political way forward for republicanism.


He was the Sinn Féin leader who reached out to the unionists in order to begin a process of reconciliation. As deputy First Minister in the North’s Executive, Martin was always gracious, dignified and fair.

His symbolic gestures in reaching out to those who were once his enemies were made to promote the process of healing and reconciliation that is so badly needed.

On a personal note last November when the windows in my house were broken in a sectarian attack he was one of the first to phone up to express his outrage and horror. I have many fond memories of this wonderful man.

When he resigned as deputy First Minister last Christmas, I heard the kind words spoken by Ian Paisley Jnr about Martin McGuinness and his good wishes and expression of gratitude to him. I was not surprised since Martin had told me how well received he was at Dr Paisley’s wake by Eileen Paisley and the whole family.

I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of positive response from DUP quarters to Ian Jnr’s comments and pleasantly surprised at the genuine compliments paid to Martin McGuinness by many on the radio programme.

There is now hope for peace in a new Ireland, thanks to Martin and others who worked hard to achieve an end to militarism. Someone has compared Martin to Michael Collins. He certainly had that charisma they say that Collins had. He also had his great stamina.

He was bright and intelligent. He was a great family man, always close to his mother, father and siblings.

His wife, Bernie and their daughters and son and grandchildren were the most important people in his life.

They will miss him the most. May they get the strength to cope with their great loss. Suaimhneas Siorraí.

Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.

Fermanagh-based priest Fr Joe McVeigh is a justice campaigner and a close friend of Martin McGuinness.