Gerry Adams praised McGuinness as a ‘passionate republican who worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation and for the re-unification of his country’; Bill Clinton said that McGuinness ‘believed in a shared future and refused to live in the past,’ and Tony Blair said ‘the same fierceness he brought to the armed struggle he brought to the cause of peace. However, that unhappy breed of Englishmen, represented by the likes of Katie Hopkins and Norman Tebbit, who exhibit an indignation not at all tampered by their ignorance of Irish history, produced the predictable firebrand babble about McGuinness’ time as an ‘IRA commander.’
Yet, for a life as diverse and complicated as that of McGuinness’s, it is irresponsible to compartmentalise in such a way. If we must describe him with one single and nifty phrase, then the one most appropriate is ‘Derry Man.’ His life was, in its every aspect, representative of his community. He went from being a civil rights marcher to a rioter, a negotiator, and finally, to a politician.
The history of Martin McGuinness is the modern history of Ireland, with all its contradictions and complications, the good and the bad. The Troubles spanned over three decades, tore communities apart and pitted them against one another. Many died during that period, and many others emerged with blood on their hands. Yet if we truly want to honour the memory of all who suffered then the best way to do that is to build a country where that can never happen again.
At the end of his life McGuinness, though he expressed some remorse, was not ashamed of his past. Northern Ireland must follow suit and deal with its past in a frank and honest way, shaking off the hyper-partisanship in favour of reconciliation and renewal. The past is what it is, and there is no virtue on dwelling on it, but the future if a precious thing and is entirely ours to create.
As the man himself said in an interview given to Eamonn Mallie, ‘I think the work of the last 20 years has been transformative in terms of both security and political situation. I would like to think I have made my own small contribution to all of that. You know, where we are going now is a far better place than where we were 20 years ago and if we keep this going where we will be 10 years from now will be a far better place than where we are at the moment.’
A giant of Irish politics has now been laid to rest. Martin McGuinness was a man who, for better or for worse, put his talents to the service of his community and his country.