‘Freedom fighter’


Grief turned to pride for Sinn Fein this week as tens of thousands paid their respects to a leader who came to symbolise peace in Ireland and the process through which the Provisional IRA gave birth to a political powerhouse.

For some, the sudden passing and funeral of the Derry man brought to mind the death in 1981 of hunger striker Bobby Sands. Others made the comparison to Michael Collins, the Irish rebel who was killed in 1922 not long after he forged a peace deal with the British government.

But across the political spectrum there was near universal respect for a man who will be remembered as one of Ireland’s most capable leaders and who became a hero to Sinn Fein and the Provisional republican movement.

In Derry’s Bogside, thousands lined the funeral route or followed the cortege after a ceremony which bore the hallmarks of a state funeral.

After jetting in for the ceremony on Thursday, Bill Clinton, the former US president who became directly involved in Irish peace negotiations, paid glowing tribute to Mr McGuinness. From the pulpit, he lectured politicians from across the political divide on the need to ‘finish his work’.

Mr Clinton summed up Mr McGuinness’s life as “I fought, I made peace, I made politics.” He told the 1,500 people packed into Saint Columba’s Church that Mr McGuinness “persevered and he prevailed, he risked the wrath of his comrades and rejection of his adversaries. He made honourable compromises and was strong enough to keep them and came to be trusted because his word was good.

“And he never stopped being who he was. A good husband, a good father, a follower of the faith of his father and mother and a passionate believer in a free, secure, self-governing Ireland.”

Mr Clinton added: “If you really came here to celebrate his life and honour the contribution of the last chapter of it, you have to finish his work.” The full text of his comments are included below.

Since his death at the age of 66 was announced on Tuesday morning, political leaders past and present have been praising the Derry man for his key achievement in negotiating an end to the Provisional IRA’s armed struggle -- while acknowledging his own role within it.

His commitment to the political process in the face of British and unionist intransigence and bigotry was recognised, even by those who resisted Sinn Fein at the time.

“Once he became the peacemaker, he became it wholeheartedly and with no shortage of determined opposition to those who wanted to carry on the war,” said British Prime Minister Tony Blair. “I will remember him therefore with immense gratitude for the part he played in the peace process, and with genuine affection for the man I came to know and admire for his contribution to peace.”

Buckingham Palace confirmed the queen of England, with whom Mr McGuinness came to develop a friendship in a series of peace initiatives, sent a private message of condolence to McGuinness’s grieving family, his widow, Bernie, his sons Fiachra and Emmett, daughters Grainne and Fionnuala, and his grandchildren.

Even the family of unionist ‘firebrand’ Ian Paisley, who died in 2014, also spoke fondly and respectfully of Mr McGuinness’s relations with their father. In the St Andrew’s peace deal of 2006, Mr McGuinness backed Paisley as First Minister and went on to share power with the hardline unionist DUP for over a decade. As relations thawed between the two men, the political arrangement was nicknamed “The Chuckle Brothers” because of their constant smiling and grinning.

His son, Ian Paisley Jr, said he had gone from viewing Mr McGuinness as the “godfather of the IRA” to considering him a personal friend. He said the respect Mr McGuinness afforded his father during their time in power together was genuine.

“[Mr McGuinness] became the necessary man in government to deliver a stable and necessary peace, and that’s a complex and remarkable journey,” he said.

Ian Paisley’s successor as First Minister, Peter Robinson, also paid tribute to his support for peace efforts.

“I do not believe that any other republican could have performed the role he did during this transition. In the difficult days we presently face, his influence will be greatly missed.”

But their was continuing hate from some within the unionist community and the British establishment. Earlier in the week, the former chair of the British Conservative party, Norman Tebbit, wished Mr McGuinness an ‘eternity in hell’.

Scores of internet posts by former British soldiers and loyalists exulted in the death of the Sinn Fein leader.

Members of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment, which carried out the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in 1972, openly toasted McGuinness’s passing with a bottle of Taylors 1692 port inscribed: “To be opened on the death of Martin McGuinness”.

And a new sign has appeared in Dungannon calling for Martin McGuinness to ‘rot in hell’. The poster carried the words: “Moygashel celebrate the death of the Bogside Butcher” and an image of the Grim Reaper in front of two Union Jacks.

It contrasted sharply with the generosity shown by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who, in his oration over Mr McGuinness’s grave, urged republicans to continue to reach out to unionists.

“Let us learn to like each other, to be friends, to celebrate and enjoy our differences and to do so on the basis of common sense, respect and tolerance for each other and everyone else - as equals,” he said.

“Let me appeal also to nationalists and republicans - do nothing to disrespect our unionist neighbours or anyone else.

“Stand against bigotry. Against sectarianism, But respect our unionist neighbours. Reach out to them. Lead, as Martin led, by example. By little acts of kindness and generosity.”

In his oration, published in full here yesterday, Mr Adams said Mr McGuinness would not be surprised at comments about him “in particular [from] those who suffered at the hands of the IRA”.

But he gave a reply to some of his critics.

“Let me take issue with those in the editorial rooms or in their political ivory towers who denounce Martin McGuinness as a terrorist,” he said.

“[As Pearse said] at the grave of another Fenian - the fools, the fools, the fools. Martin cannot answer them back. So let me answer for him. Martin McGuinness was not a terrorist. Martin McGuinness was a Freedom Fighter.”

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