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Brian Feeney: How McGuinness became the most popular politican in the north

Martin McGuinness candlelight vigil at the site of the of RUC station on the Glen Road belfast Pic Philip Walsh.

MARTIN McGuinness’s election as deputy first minister in 2007 was an occasion both unique and momentous.

He was the first member of Sinn Féin in any of the party’s incarnations to lead an administration on this island.

De Valera and Seán Lemass had been members of Sinn Féin but the party split from the Free State government in 1922 and so it was as Fianna Fáil they governed the Free State and Republic.

Like McGuinness in Derry, Lemass had been a prolific gunman in the IRA’s Dublin brigade but like Lemass, Martin McGuinness put aside his weapons to engage in exclusively democratic activity.

In McGuinness’s case the process took a very long time but there are good reasons to explain that.

Much has been made in the past 24 hours of the contradictions in Martin McGuinness’s life between his career as a Derry IRA street fighter and later IRA chief of staff and his role as deputy first minister in a power-sharing administration.

It’s a feature of British commentary that there seems to be no recognition that a person engaged in armed resistance against British government, whether in Africa like Jomo Kenyatta or Robert Mugabe or in Cyprus like Archbishop Makarios or Commandant de Valera shooting British troops from Boland’s Mill, can be primarily interested in achieving a political settlement.

Of course many will argue that there is no similarity between the IRA campaign in the north and similar actions in former colonies but two points are instructive here.

A candlelight vigil in west Belfast last night in memory of Martin McGuinness. Picture by Philip Walsh

First, people like Martin McGuinness were convinced in the 1970s that they were fighting in a struggle to remove British rule from their first colony, Ireland.

Secondly, the British in 1972 acted as if it were the case and opened discussions with the IRA that summer. Why would McGuinness, a delegate at those talks, not believe IRA activity had brought him to Cheyne Walk to meet the secretary of state?

It took another 20 years, much of that time wasted on one hand by the stupidity and savagery of the policies Margaret Thatcher pursued and on the other by hundreds of IRA killings, before McGuinness had a chance to present policies for peace to British officials in 1991. Previous attempts in the 1980s had been rebuffed.

It was in the years following 1991 that McGuinness’s diplomatic and political abilities came to the fore.

His task was twofold. Not simply persuading the British government to enter negotiations but to bring hardliners in the IRA with him.

To that end he had to ride two horses. As John Major said yesterday, he understood that sometimes, if the IRA went back on promises as with the Warrington bomb in 1993, it was because McGuinness had to constantly reassure militarist elements in the IRA first that there would be no ceasefire and secondly that there would be no decommissioning of weapons.

The term ‘creative ambiguity’ didn’t apply only to documents like the Good Friday Agreement.

It was McGuinness’s fearsome reputation in the IRA as an operator in Derry, then as the first commander of 'Northern Command' in 1976 and later as chief of staff, that enabled him to carry the IRA along with him as the republican movement transformed into a successful political party for the first time in its history without an armed wing.

His achievement was to accomplish that transformation without a major split as happened often before when the armed wing went off leaving a powerless political rump. In 1997 there was a split but the so-called Real IRA was the powerless rump.

While his clout in the IRA came from his reputation for ruthlessness and steely commitment, to the surprise of those who met him in politics, McGuinness was a man of great charm and humour who won people over with those gifts.

The coffin of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness is carried to his home in Derry after he died aged 66. Picture by Niall Carson, PA

He operated person to person while it was Gerry Adams who went to Washington and met US presidents for public photo-shoots.

One of the British negotiators, Jonathan Powell, recalls that the first time he met McGuinness in 1997 he refused to shake hands with him but 10 years later invited McGuinness to his wedding. That’s how McGuinness became the most popular politician in the north by 2015.

One person he failed to charm was Arlene Foster. In future unionists will look back on the McGuinness years at Stormont as what might have been and what Arlene Foster blew. He’s irreplaceable in republican politics.

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