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Dublin: 7 °C Tuesday 21 January, 2020

Opinion: 'McGuinness ended up in a better place, bringing his party, followers and society with him'

Irish politics lost a major political figure today, writes David McCann.

Dr David McCann Lecturer, Ulster University

MARTIN MCGUINNESS WAS for me growing up a dominant figure, who featured regularly on the evening news as the peace process took shape, first as Sinn Féin’s Chief Negotiator, Education Minister and then as Deputy First Minister.

What always fascinated me about him is that he seemed to be able to completely transition from his early days in the IRA to the role of senior statesman with relative ease. This is not something that is done easily, nor can everybody do it with the same degree of success that Martin McGuinness managed to achieve.

He was able to lead his followers in the direction of peace and was able to use his position of leadership to reach out towards Unionism, in ways that a decade ago would have seemed unthinkable.

Defining moments

During his time as Deputy First Minister two moments stand out for me.

First, that iconic picture of Ian Paisley, Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair and himself in Stormont to celebrate the restoration of devolution in May 2007. It will be an image used in countless history books and perfectly captured the optimistic mood of that time.

The fact that he was able to forge such a strong personal friendship with Ian Paisley and his family speaks volumes about Martin McGuinness’s capacity to make deals and build bridges. I think the fact that those involved in this picture have nothing but positive things to say about him today also says a lot about the man.

Second, was his response to dissident republican attacks on Massereene Barracks in 2009 that killed two off duty British soldiers.

McGuinness stood with the PSNI Chief Constable and the then First Minister, Peter Robinson, strongly condemning the act and labelling the perpetrators as “traitors” to the island of Ireland. A more unsure politician would have held back, but McGuinness showed the necessary leadership that the moment demanded.

'New dawn' for Northern Ireland From left: Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain and First Minister Ian Paisley, in the First Minister's office at the Northern Ireland Assembly, Stormont . Source: PA Archive/PA Images

His ease and confidence

There were other significant moments. Meeting Queen Elizabeth was an important moment, for which both of them deserve an immense amount of credit, in helping bring the two communities closer together.

The ease and confidence he displayed at events such as this proves the point that leaders secure in themselves and their values, need not fear breaking out of traditional boxes.

Today will also demonstrate how aggrieved some families still feel about the past, and actions of the IRA in particular. I watched Lord Tebbitt give colourful views about Martin McGuinness, and it is unlikely that people in that position will ever truly heal their very raw wounds.

But I also watched people like Arlene Foster, Ian Paisley and Jo Berry give eloquent statements about the value of the peace process that people like Martin McGuinness helped create and bed in.

He brought his party, followers and society on a special journey

I was not a fan of everything Martin did throughout his political career and there will be many aspects of his life for historians to examine for years to come. However, today I find myself in agreement with Ian Paisley, who said that it’s more important to look at where a person ends up, rather than focusing on where they started.

Martin McGuinness unquestionably ended up in a better place, bringing his party, followers and society with him. On this day a real era in politics has ended and in the uncertain times ahead, Northern Ireland will miss his steady hand and clear focus.

For me, a part of his legacy will be that, no matter how dark the future may look, with hard work and new thinking, better days are always possible.

Ronald Reagan said it best and Martin McGuinness’s personal journey proves it: “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”

We can only hope that the same type of partnership that we saw under Paisley and McGuinness can happen again, and that the work he started in reaching out and building a  unity community, can be completed.

David McCann is the Deputy Editor of Slugger O’Toole.

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About the author:

Dr David McCann  / Lecturer, Ulster University

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