Martin McGuinness, Irish rebel turned peacemaking politician, dies at 66

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Martin McGuinness took up arms to fight British soldiers in the streets but ended up shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth II. A militant who long sought to unify Ireland through violence, he became a peacemaking politician who earned the respect, and even the friendship, of his former enemies.

McGuinness, who died Tuesday at 66, was an Irish Republican Army commander who led the paramilitary movement toward reconciliation with Britain and went on to serve as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister for a decade in a Catholic-Protestant power-sharing unity government.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who worked with McGuinness to forge Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord, said “there will be some who cannot forget the bitter legacy of the war. And for those who lost loved ones in it, that is completely understandable.

“But for those of us able finally to bring about the Northern Ireland peace agreement, we know we could never have done it without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future,” Blair said.

No observer could have foreseen what happened next: a genuine friendship between First Minister Paisley and Deputy First Minister McGuinness. Belfast wits dubbed them “The Chuckle Brothers” because of their public warmth.

When Paisley died in 2014, an emotional McGuiness hailed him as a champion of peace.

“Past history shows that we were political opponents, but on this day I think I can say without fear of contradiction that I have lost a friend,” he said.

McGuinness maintained more businesslike relations with Paisley’s frosty successor, Peter Robinson. In 2012, when Queen Elizabeth II visited Belfast, the monarch and the former militant shook hands — a gesture that would have seemed impossible just years before.

Two years later, McGuinness toasted the queen’s health during a banquet Windsor Castle.

All the while, McGuinness expressed newfound support for the police as they faced attacks from IRA splinter groups — a U-turn that exposed McGuinness and his relatives to death threats.

More recently, Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government tottered amid a scandal over a bungled green energy program. When a frail-looking McGuinness resigned in January, the administration collapsed, triggering an early election in March that has plunged the future of Northern Ireland power-sharing into uncertainty.

Days later, McGuinness resigned from politics, saying it was time for a new generation of republican leaders to take charge.

“We are on a journey to unite our people and unite our island,” he said. “As a Sinn Fein activist I will continue to play a full and enthusiastic part in that essential process of building bridges, of dialogue and of reconciliation between our still divided people.”

McGuinness is survived by his wife, Bernadette, two daughters and two sons.

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UPDATES:

9:59 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details, background and reaction.

This article was originally published at 12:05 a.m.


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