Martin McGuinness: An Irish republican who struggled for justice and peace

Irish republican leader Martin McGuinness, who was Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland until stepping down due to ill health earlier this year, passed away on March 20 aged 66.

Born in 1950 in Derry in the six counties occupied by Britain, he came face to face with the discrimination and sectarian bigotry against Irish nationalists and Catholics that marked the partitioned statelet.

When a civil rights movement broke out in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s calling for civil rights for Catholics, it faced extreme violence. In Derry, the nationalist population fought back and famously established "Free Derry" -- a self-declared liberated zone -- in 1969.

Amid rising violence against nationalist and Catholic civilians, the British Army was deployed in Derry and Belfast. Despite formally being deployed to protect nationalist civilians, the army targetted the nationalist community.

The occupying forces introduced interment in 1971, allowing them to hold anyone in jail indefinitely without charges. Almost 2000 people were interned — all but about 100 of them from the natio0nalist community. Many were not involved in republican politics when they were jailed — but once released joined the movement.

Just as Derry was the scene of the famous “Free Derry” popular insurrection, it was also the scene of the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre on January 30, 1972, when 14 unarmed civilians were shot dead by British paratroopers at a peaceful civil rights march.

In this context, like so many young working-class nationalists from his generation, McGuinness joined the Provisional IRA, which was committed to an armed struggle to end British occupation and unite Ireland. 

Involved in peace talks since the early '70s, McGuinness was first jailed for IRA activity by a special jury-less court in the Republic of Ireland in 1973, telling the court: "We have fought against the killing of our people." In 1982, along with republican activists Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison, he was barred from entering Britain.

McGuinness says he left the IRA in 1974, becoming active in the allied republican political party Sinn Fein. With Adams, McGuinness was part of a push to shift the republican struggle from a militarist one -- in which all sides, including republicans, were responsible for unjustifiable actions -- towards emphasising the political struggle to win freedom.

A key part of that process was the deep political struggle unleashed by the campaign against the treatment of republican prisoners in British-run jails. This culminated in the 1981 hunger strikes, in which 10 republican prisoners died demanding basic rights in face of the intransigence of the British government.

The process of seeking a political resolution to the conflict took years to play out, but McGuinness and Adams were crucial to negotiating a formal end to the armed conflict. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement, of which McGuinness was a chief negotiator, established a peace process that included power-sharing between republicans and unionists (those who supported ongoing British rule).

McGuinness was elected to Stormont's legislative assembly in 1998. He was also elected to British parliament that year, but refused to take his seat in keeping with Sinn Fein's policy of abstention. In 2007, he became deputy First Minister in the Stormont administration, having served as education minister.

Although it largely ended the armed conflict and brought some gains, the British government and unionists have frustrated many aspects of the GFA. Along with British-pushed austerity and a corruption scandal involving Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster, frustrations at the blocking of progress lead to Sinn Fein withdrawing from the power sharing arrangement.

McGuinness resigned as deputy First Minister in January, forcing new elections to be held. At the time, he announced he would not stand for re-election due to the illness that would kill him, paving the way for Michelle O'Neill to take over as Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland.

McGuinness has died at a moment when the republican movement has achieved one of its biggest successes, falling just short of becoming the largest party in Stormont in the March 2 elections. For the first time since partition in 1921, unionists don't hold a majority in the Stormont assembly. 

With the failure of the peace process to resolve key issues and Britain's "Brexit" vote threatening to drag Northern Ireland out of the European Union despite most voting to remain, the issue of a united Ireland has been put back on the political agenda.

Adams, McGuiness's long-time comrade, told Irish media outlet RTE about McGuinness's role in the IRA's armed struggle: “Martin McGuinness never went to war, the war came to him. It came to his streets, it came to his city, it came to his community.

“When we were arguing for civil rights, we got the answer. When we were arguing for basic modest reforms, we got the answer and it was a militaristic answer.” 

Speaking in Derry, Adams told RTE News: “If you picture when Martin McGuinness was born here in 1950, he wasn’t wanted by this state, nor were all the people here.

“They were discriminated against, they were disadvantaged and when there was a popular, peaceful uprising for civil rights, the British responded in a militaristic way; and the politicians made the awful mistake of giving control over to the generals. And that’s when Martin became involved in IRA activism.”

Stating that republicans were not blameless for their role in the conflict, Adams said: “The awful mistake that the establishment made – they handed the problem to the generals.”

Pointing out that when a peaceful way to resolve the conflict appeared, McGuinness strongly backed it, Adams insisted there would have been no peace process "with all its imperfections" without Martin McGuinness.

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