Sense of mortality motivated McGuinness' push for peace

David Blevins, Ireland Correspondent

If only he had passed the 11-plus, Martin McGuinness could have gone to the prestigious St. Columb's College.

Instead of dropping out the local technical college at the age of 15, he may well have been in university when the British Army arrived in Londonderry.

In 1969, the body of a man who had been shot dead by soldiers was brought to the end of the street where he lived.

For the 19-year-old butcher's assistant, whose mother had begged him not to get involved, it was the coup de grace.

By the age of 21, Martin McGuinness had become the IRA's poster boy, "sniping and shooting around corners," according to one former activist.

A militant with a proven track record in operational experience, one British army officer referred to him as "excellent officer material".

From 1978 until 1982, when he is widely believed to have been the IRA's Chief of Staff, the terror group claimed 372 lives.

By 1990, and not for the first time, he found himself in secret talks with the British government, setting the scene for what we call "the peace process".

Martin McGuinness had gone from taking risks on the backstreets of Bogside to taking risks in the backrooms of Downing Street.

They paid off when he and his long-time Unionist rival, the Rev Ian Paisley, not only shared power in devolved government but became friends.

Martin McGuinness was deeply impacted when during his late mother's illness, the Rev Paisley prayed for her in the First Minister's office.

Despite being a devout Catholic, he regularly attended Sunday worship with his Protestant neighbours at 1st Derry Presbyterian Church.

He worked tirelessly at Stormont, a three-hour round trip from his home, and travelled the globe encouraging investment.

Not unlike the Rev Paisley, a sense of mortality may have been the motivation for the fly-fishing godfather, who by now had become a grandfather.

During a visit to World War One battlefields in France last year, I noticed him standing quietly in the soft rainfall.

"A penny for your thoughts, Martin," I said. "I'm just looking at all these graves," he replied, "we're all going the same way".

There is no questioning the contribution Martin McGuinness made to the quest for peace in Northern Ireland.

But many innocent IRA victims would have escaped the grave if his life had taken a different course.