Martin McGuinness – terrorist or diplomat?

By Simon Green

Following the death of the IRA commander turned politician, the question of whether Martin McGuinness deserves to be remembered as a terrorist or peace-maker has been hotly disputed.

Martin McGuinness is thought to have joined the IRA in the late 1960s, and by the early 70s had risen to second-in-command, in his home city of Derry in Northern Ireland. An unashamedly public figure within the IRA throughout his membership, McGuinness would make regular appearances in news reports or documentaries, giving a voice to the Irish nationalists’ cause.

Yet he was not just a public figure. On what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, where British soldiers opened fire on protestors in Derry in January 1972 – immortalized by one of U2’s few bearable songs – it is thought McGuinness was armed with a sub-machine gun. As the IRA directed their attention to violence against political figures and civilians alike, Martin McGuinness continued to be a visible presence of the radical group into the 1990s.

The end of the decade saw the transformation of McGuinness from an outspoken member of an allegedly terrorist group, to Sinn Fein politician, the political wing of the Irish nationalist cause in Northern Ireland. Along with Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley, he was seen as a key figure in brokering a peace in the country in 1998. The Good Friday Agreement was a monumental step forward in relations between Unionists and Republicans in the country.

In 2007, McGuinness became Deputy First Minister of the Northern Irish government and came to denounce the use of violence by hard-line republicans in recent years, saying famously “my war is over.” As such a strong opponent of the British government, in 2012 a momentous occasion came when the Queen shook hands with the ex-IRA commander. It was particularly poignant as the Queen’s relative, Lord Mountbatten, was killed by the IRA in 1979.

It would seem that his legacy is not black and white, he’s neither a ‘goodie’ nor a ‘baddie’, as is so often the case in history. Some of his actions are rightly seen as reprehensible, whether he was an active part of the IRA’s violence or simply did nothing to stop it in his early years. But it also seems undisputable that his work over the last 20 years has brought about genuine positive change to his nation in symbolising the progress made by Republicans in Northern Ireland in switching from the methods of war and violence to politics and compromise.

No matter what opinion you have of Martin McGuinness’ politics, the way he shaped his country’s history for both good or bad over the past four decades will be remembered for generations to come.

Photograph: Sinn Fein via Flickr.

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