The journey of Martin McGuinness

There can be occasions when the life of an individual becomes tightly entwined with the history of a country and there can be no doubt that the story of Martin McGuinness, who died early yesterday at the age of 66, entered such a category.

Mr McGuinness epitomised two key aspects of republicanism, from the campaign of violence to the drive for reconciliation, and along the way he managed to become a unique catalyst for progress.

It needs to be accepted that every murder of the last five decades, whether carried out by republicans, loyalists or the forces of the state, was wrong, cruel and brought only shame on any cause with which it was associated.

However, as Ian Paisley, whose late father moved from bitter enmity to a remarkably close friendship with Mr McGuinness, said yesterday, it is the climax rather than the start of a career which really counts.

Mr McGuinness came to prominence during a period of exceptional upheaval in his native Derry and always publicly accepted that he played a leadership role in the IRA at a time when it was responsible for many appalling deaths.

The events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when 14 civilians were shot dead by the Parachute Regiment, also defined the era, and the finding of the Saville Tribunal was that Mr McGuinness had probably been armed with a sub-machine gun on the day but had not acted in a way which would have justified the British soldiers in opening fire.

Although Mr McGuinness told the Saville inquiry that he left the IRA in 1974, it was widely believed that he remained close to the heart of the organisation for at least another twenty years.

What cannot be disputed is that, together with Gerry Adams, he had the authority, the vision and the determination to ensure that Sinn Féin ultimately became fully committed to constitutional politics.

The party prospered with Mr McGuinness as its chief negotiator before he became education minister in the first power-sharing government of 1999 and eventually emerged as deputy first minister in 2007.

Many observers predicted that an administration dominated by Mr McGuinness and Mr Paisley senior could not survive but the warmth of their relationship confounded the critics.

Mr McGuinness understood the need for both practical and symbolic gestures, and his meetings with Queen Elizabeth, as well as his visit to the Somme, received considerable and justified praise.

Another key moment came in 2009 when he stood alongside the then first minister Peter Robinson and the PSNI chief constable Sir Hugh Orde to condemn the killers of police office Stephen Carroll as `traitors to the island of Ireland.’

The devolved structures should have developed a long-term stability but were severely undermined over the last year by the Brexit referendum, which pushed the wider issue of partition back to the top of the political agenda, and the major consequences of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.

While a fully fit Mr McGuinness might have been able to exercise a reassuring influence on the proceedings, it became difficult to separate his seriously declining health from the credibility of the executive and he resigned from his post in January.

He had earned the right to a long and happy retirement, but his condition deteriorated over recent weeks until, with his family beside him, he passed away in Altnagelvin hospital.

The legacy of Mr McGuinness will be discussed in detail over coming days but by any standards he was central to the major advances for the people of Ireland, of all religions and none, which followed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.