Martin McGuinness dies at 66: Queen to send private message to widow of former IRA commander

Robert Mendick
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It is a measure of Martin McGuinness’s remarkable transformation from IRA commander to peacemaker that Buckingham Palace announced yesterday that the Queen has decided to send a private letter of condolence to his widow.

The IRA had, after all, assassinated Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the Queen’s second cousin and Duke of Edinburgh’s uncle, by placing a bomb on his fishing boat.

The earl’s 14-year-old grandson was also murdered in the atrocity in 1979, the same year McGuinness was appointed the Provisional IRA’s chief of staff.

Irish Republicans carry the coffin of Martin McGuinness through the bogside area of Londonderry, Northern Ireland Credit: Peter Morrison /AP
Emmet McGuinness, a son of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, follows his father's coffin to his home in Londonderry after he died aged 66 Credit: Niall Carson /PA

But 33 years after those murders, Her Majesty found herself shaking the “bloodied” hands of the “Butcher of Bogside”.

The historic photographs of their first meeting in 2012 illustrated just how far he, and Irish politics, had travelled.

Sinn Feinn Leader Michelle O'Neill and Sinn Feinn President Gerry Adams carry the coffin of Martin McGuinness through the streets of Londonderry Credit: CLODAGH KILCOYNE /REUTERS 
The Queen shakes hands with Martin McGuinness during an historic meeting in 2012 Credit: Paul Faith/PA

On Tuesday Buckingham Palace declined to issue a public statement on the former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister.

But the Queen’s offer to send private condolences to Bernie, his widow, shows just how far he had travelled from IRA enforcer to senior establishment figure.

In death as in life, Martin McGuinness divided opinion. Colin Parry, whose 12-year-old son Tim was murdered when the IRA bombed Warrington town centre in March 1993, could not bring himself to absolve McGuinness but praised him all the same.

Mourners walk with pall bearers as they carry the coffin of Martin McGuinness through the streets of Londonderry, Northern Ireland Credit: CLODAGH KILCOYNE /REUTERS 
Pall bearers carry the coffin of Martin McGuinness through the streets of Londonderry, Northern Ireland Credit: CLODAGH KILCOYNE /REUTERS 

“Forgiveness never comes into it. I don’t forgive Martin. I don’t forgive the IRA – nor does my wife, nor do my children,” said Mr Parry. “But setting aside forgiveness, the simple fact is I found Martin McGuinness [to be]... a man who I believe was sincere in his desire for peace and maintaining the peace process at all costs.”

Sir John Major, who paved the way for peace during his Downing Street tenure, accused McGuinness, who was 66 when he died, of having “a lot of blood on his hands”, but added: “I do recognise the part he subsequently played in building a peace process”.

Other politicians praised McGuinness as a man who had in the last 20 years left his violent past behind.

Tony Blair, who negotiated peace with McGuinness, said: “[F]or 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.”

Gerry Adams, McGuinness’s Sinn Féin colleague, acted as a pallbearer as his coffin was followed by a huge crowd through the streets of Londonderry. Mr Adams described him as a “passionate republican who worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation and for the reunification of his country”.

Theresa May said: “While I can never condone the path he took in the earlier part of his life, Martin McGuinness ultimately played a defining role in leading the republican movement away from violence.”

The Grand Hotel in Brighton after an IRA bomb attack in 1984  Credit: PA

Ian Paisley Jr, whose father forged an unlikely friendship with McGuinness as First Minister and Deputy First Minister in a 2007 power-sharing government, added his own tribute.

He described McGuinness as “godfather of the IRA” before adding: “I think the Christian view in life is how a person’s journey started is of course important, but it is how it finishes which is actually more important.”

And George Hamilton, Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, while acknowledging officers’ suffering during the Troubles, added: “Martin McGuinness believed in a better future for our community, and this is a vision shared by policing.”

Michelle O’Neill, McGuinness’s successor as Sinn Féin leader at Stormont, called him “a giant of a man…my friend and mentor”.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader and long-standing supporter of Irish Republicanism, eulogised McGuinness for his “huge role in securing peace”.

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness became known as 'the Chuckle Brothers' for their shared jocularity Credit: Paul Faith/PA Wire

“He was a great family man and my thoughts are with them,” he said in a statement on Twitter that provoked outrage from victims.

“Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour Party – he speaks for Labour. Is this the kind of reflection and legacy that the Labour Party and its supporters want to have in the history books?” said Julie Hambleton, whose sister was murdered in the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings.

Martin McGuinness: From IRA chief to deputy Northern Ireland First Minister

Reaction from Northern Ireland politicians

The young gunman at the height of The Troubles

Mr McGuiness's frail appearance in the past few weeks was in stark contrast to the television images of the young gunman who, as second-in-command of the Provisional IRA’s Derry Brigade, showed reporters around Republican areas of the city in the early 1970s, at the height of "The Troubles".

He was long vilified in Britain for his commitment to the IRA’s "armed struggle" and at one stage it was alleged that he was a member of the seven-man IRA Army Council.

A young Martin McGuinness 

It was claimed that as head of the IRA's Northern Command he had advance knowledge of the IRA's 1987 Enniskillen "Remembrance Day" bombing, which left 11 civilians dead - something he denied.

What Bloody Sunday inquiry found about McGuinness

The inquiry into Bloody Sunday, when 14 unarmed civil rights protesters were killed by British paratroopers in 1972, concluded that although McGuinness was "engaged in paramilitary activity" at the time and had probably been armed with a Thompson submachine gun on the day itself, there was insufficient evidence to make any finding other than they were "sure that he did not engage in any activity that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire".

In 1993, a Central television documentary claimed that in 1986 he had been present at the interrogation of Frank Hegarty, an IRA informer who was later found shot in the back of the head. Mr McGuinness has denied all the allegations.

How he persuaded IRA gunmen to lay down arms

But his later role in using his credibility as a paramilitary commander to persuade IRA gunmen and their supporters to lay down their arms and support the peace process was recognised as central in bringing an end to the near-daily violence that had plagued the province since the late 1969 and claimed the lives of 3,532 people.

Martin McGuinness, as Sinn Fein chief negotiator, during a Press conference in London in February 1998 Credit: Brian Smith

His crowning achievement: Meeting the Queen

The former IRA commander’s achievement appeared to be crowned when he met the Queen at a charity event in Belfast in 2012, in his capacity as deputy first minister.

In a hugely symbolic moment the pair shook hands in public, an act which appeared to seal the peace between Republicans and the British state.

Mr McGuinness said later: "I liked her courage in agreeing to meet with me. There's nothing I have seen in my engagements with her that this is someone I should dislike - I like her.

“She knows my history. She knows I was a member of the IRA. She knows I was in conflict with her soldiers, yet both of us were prepared to rise above all of that."

He met her again in June last year at Hillsborough Castle when, in response to his enquiries as to her health, she responded: “Well, I’m still alive."

Teenager who left school at 15 with no qualifications

Mr McGuinness, whose middle name Pacelli was after Pope Pius XII, was born in Londonderry and attended Brow of the Hill Christian Brothers Technical School, leaving at the age 15 without qualifications.

One of his first decision on becoming Minister of Education for the Northern Ireland Assembly was to scrap the 11-plus exam, which he had himself failed.

Mr McGuinness married Bernadette Canning in 1974 and the couple had four children, two girls and two boys.

How he became real power in republican movement

During ceasefire negotiations with the British government in 1972, he was one of a handful of republican leaders who were flown to London for talks with the British Home Secretary, William Whitelaw.

He impressed British security service officers who at the time described him as officer-material with a significant strategic vision.

Observers said Mr McGuinness was the prime mover behind every landmark decision taken by the republican movement in the 25 years that followed.

In their view it was Mr McGuinness, rather than Sinn Fein’s president Gerry Adams, who was the real power in the republican movement - whether it was the first IRA ceasefire in 1994, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the decommissioning of weapons in 2005 and the decision to move to power-sharing with the DUP two years later.

Martin McGuinness timeline

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