Martin McGuinness, IRA Man, Northern Irish Leader, Dies at 66

DUBLIN (Bloomberg News/TNS) -
Former deputy Northern Ireland First Minister Martin McGuinness in Jan., 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)

Martin McGuinness, the Irish Republican Army leader who came to symbolize Northern Ireland’s peace process, has died. He was 66.

“Throughout his life Martin showed great determination, dignity and humility and it was no different during his short illness,” Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein president, said in a statement on the party’s website. “He was a passionate republican who worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation and for the reunification of his country. “

McGuinness emerged as one of the most prominent players in the conflict between mostly Catholic republicans who wanted a united Ireland, and largely Protestant unionists who favored continued ties with the U.K., a conflagration which claimed 3,500 lives. Later, he played a key role in the talks that ended the conflict, before serving as the province’s deputy first minister for almost a decade.

Amid reports that he had been treated for amyloidosis, a rare condition that attacks the heart and other vital organs, McGuinness opted not to stand in March’s assembly election, drawing a line under a personal journey that reflected the changes in Northern Ireland’s political landscape.

After being imprisoned for IRA membership in 1973, he became one of the most-senior leaders of Sinn Fein. The organization served as the IRA’s political wing, as the republican movement pursued what came to be known as the “armalite and ballot box” strategy.

McGuinness went on to lead Sinn Fein in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The accord effectively ended the armed conflict, as then U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair oversaw the creation of a power-sharing assembly in the province.

When McGuinness became deputy first minister of Northern Ireland in 2007, he served alongside Ian Paisley — one of the most vocal unionist lawmakers and a traditional enemy of republicans such as McGuinness. The two became known as the “Chuckle Brothers,” reflecting their warm relationship.

In 2012, McGuinness shook hands with U.K. monarch Queen Elizabeth II — something that would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier. Five years later, his time as deputy first minister ended when he resigned amid a breakdown in relations with unionist first Minister Arlene Foster over the costs of a renewable energy program.

Born in Derry in 1950, he leaves the republican movement in Northern Ireland in a position of unparalleled political strength. In the election after his resignation, Sinn Fein came within one seat of becoming the biggest party in Northern Ireland for the first time.