Archbishop Eamon Martin has paid tribute to the IRA commander-turned-politician who has died following a short illness

Following the death of Martin McGuinness at the age go 66, Archbishop Eamon Martin has said the Irish Republican Army commander who led the organisation towards reconciliation with Britain was “a man of prayer” who knew that “peace was worth striving for”.

In a statement released on the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference website, the Primate of All Ireland said: “Like many people I was shocked before Christmas to hear about the serious illness of Martin McGuinness, and, despite our hopes and prayers for his recovery, today I am saddened to learn that he has died. My first thoughts are with his dear wife Bernie, his children, grandchildren, brothers and sister, and all his many friends and loved ones.”

The archbishop said that he will remember McGuinness “as someone who chose personally to leave behind the path of violence and to walk instead along the more challenging path of peace and reconciliation.”

He added: “As a leader he was courageous and took risks in order to bring others with him, convincing them that goals could be achieved by politics and persuasion. He channelled his many gifts into creating and sustaining the peace process of which he was one of the key architects.”

Turning from rebel to peacemaker, McGuinness served as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister for a decade in a power-sharing government. His party, Sinn Fein, said he died following a short illness.

McGuinness suffered from amyloidosis, a rare disease with a strain specific to Ireland’s north-west. The chemotherapy required to combat the formation of organ-choking protein deposits quickly sapped him of strength and forced him to start missing government appointments.

“The story of conflict in Ireland has brought much pain and trauma and I thank God that in recent years we have preferred peace to the horror of violence and war,” Archbishop Martin said. “People like Martin McGuinness have made an immense contribution to sustaining peace by reaching out a hand of friendship and reconciliation and being prepared to model alternatives to dispute and division.”

He added: “Martin’s personal warmth and open, friendly personality was able to melt away suspicion and help build trust with those coming from very different perspectives. Being grounded in love for his family, community and native city of Derry, he understood the importance of a peaceful, just and prosperous future for all. Martin was ambitious for peace. He knew that peace was worth striving for and was within reach in his life time.

“A fitting legacy for Martin would be a redoubling of efforts on all our parts to find solutions to our current problems and continue along the journey to a shared future. May he rest in peace.”

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said that “throughout his life Martin showed great determination, dignity and humility and it was no different during his short illness.

Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands with Martin McGuinness (Getty)

He continued: “He was a passionate republican who worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation and for the re-unification of his country. But above all he loved his family and the people of Derry and he was immensely proud of both.”

Irish President Michael D Higgins said: “The world of politics and the people across this island will miss the leadership he gave, shown most clearly during the difficult times of the peace process, and his commitment to the values of genuine democracy that he demonstrated in the development of the institutions in Northern Ireland.”

However, Lord Tebbit, who injured along with his wife in the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984, said that, following the death of McGuinness, the world is “a sweeter place today”.

“He was not only a multi-murderer, he was a coward. He knew that the IRA were defeated because British intelligence had penetrated right the way up to the Army Council and that the end was coming,” he said.

“He then sought to save his own skin and he knew that it was likely he would be charged before long with several murders which he had personally committed and he decided that the only thing to do was to opt for peace.”

Lord Tebbit added: “He claimed to be a Roman Catholic. I hope that his beliefs turn out to be true and he’ll be parked in a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of hell for the rest of eternity.”

He said that he could not forgive McGuinness for his terrorist past because “forgiveness requires confession of sins and repentance… and the there was none of that.”

McGuinness’s transformation as peacemaker was all the more remarkable because, as a senior IRA commander during the years of gravest Catholic-Protestant violence, he insisted that Northern Ireland must be forced out of the United Kingdom against the wishes of Protestants.

Even after the Sinn Fein party — the IRA’s legal, public face — started to run for elections in the 1980s, McGuinness insisted as Sinn Fein deputy leader that “armed struggle” remained essential.

“We don’t believe that winning elections and any amount of votes will bring freedom in Ireland,” he told a BBC documentary team in 1986. “At the end of the day, it will be the cutting edge of the IRA that will bring freedom.”

Yet within a few years of making that stubborn vow, McGuinness was exploring the opposite option in covert contacts with British intelligence that led eventually to a truce, inter-party talks and the installation of the IRA icon in the heart of Northern Ireland’s government.

Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole argued in January 2017 that McGuinness had been “a mass killer — during his period of membership and leadership the IRA killed 1,781 people, including 644 civilians — whose personal amiability has been essential to the peace process. If he were not a ruthless and unrepentant exponent of violence, he would never have become such a key figure in bringing violence to an end.”

Unlike his close ally Adams, McGuinness never hid the fact that he had been a commander of the IRA — classed as a terrorist organisation by the British, Irish and US governments. Nor could he.

Born May 23, 1950, he joined the breakaway Provisional IRA faction in his native Londonderry — simply Derry to Irish nationalists — after dropping out of high school and working as an apprentice butcher in the late 1960s. At the time, the Catholic civil rights movement faced increasing conflict with the province’s Protestant government and police.

He rose to become Derry’s deputy IRA commander by age 21 as “Provo” bombs systematically wrecked the city centre. Soldiers found it impossible to pass IRA road barricades erected in McGuinness’s nearby Bogside power base.

McGuinness appeared unmasked at early Provisional IRA press conferences. The BBC filmed him walking through the Bogside discussing how the IRA command structure worked and stressing his concern to minimise civilian casualties, an early sign of public relations savvy.

In 1972, Northern Ireland’s bloodiest year, McGuinness joined Adams in a six-man IRA delegation flown by the British government to London for secret face-to-face negotiations during a brief truce. Those talks got nowhere and McGuinness went back on the run until his arrest on New Year’s Eve in the Republic of Ireland near a car loaded with 250 pounds (110 kilograms) of explosives and 4,750 rounds of ammunition.

During one of his two Dublin trials for IRA membership, McGuinness declared from the dock he was “a member of the Derry Brigade of the IRA and I’m very, very proud of it.”

Historians and security analysts agree that McGuinness was promoted to the IRA’s ruling army council following his November 1974 parole from prison and would have overseen many of the group’s most spectacular and divisive attacks. These included bomb attacks on London tourist spots and the use of “human bombs” — civilian employees like cooks and cleaners at British security installations — who were forced to drive car bombs to their places of work and were detonated by remote control before they could raise the alarm.

His central role in the IRA command was underscored when Britain in 1990 opened secret dialogue with the underground group in hopes of securing a ceasefire. An MI6 agent codenamed The Mountain Climber met McGuinness several times as part of wider diplomatic efforts that delivered a 1994 IRA truce and, ultimately, multi-party negotiations on Northern Ireland’s future and the US-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998.

Northern Ireland’s first power-sharing government, formed in 1999, was led by moderates and afforded only minor roles for Sinn Fein and the most uncompromising Protestant party, Paisley’s Democratic Unionists. When Sinn Fein nominated McGuinness to be education minister, many Protestant lawmakers recoiled and insisted they would never accept what one called “an IRA godfather” overseeing their children’s education.

That first coalition collapsed under the twin weight of Paisley-led obstruction and the IRA’s refusal to disarm as the Good Friday pact intended. McGuinness served as the lead liaison with disarmament officials.

After election results vaulted the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein to the top of their communities for the first time, pressure mounted on the IRA to surrender its stockpiled arsenal. This happened in 2005, paving the way for Paisley to bury the hatchet with the group he called “the Sinners.”

No observer could have foreseen what happened next: a genuine friendship between First Minister Paisley and Deputy First Minister McGuinness. Belfast wits dubbed them the Chuckle Brothers because of their public warmth, an image that quickly eroded Protestant support for Paisley and forced him out as Democratic Unionist chief within the year.

Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness speaking during a rally in North London to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, 25th January 1997

McGuinness at a rally in 1997 (Getty)

McGuinness maintained more business-like relations with Paisley’s successor, Peter Robinson. Together they met Queen Elizabeth II for a historic 2012 handshake in Belfast and were guests of honour at Windsor Castle two years later. All the while, McGuinness expressed newfound support for the police as they faced attacks from IRA splinter groups — a U-turn that exposed McGuinness and his relatives to death threats in their Derry home.

His relations with the newest Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, turned sour with surprising speed. When Foster rebuffed Sinn Fein’s demands to step aside, McGuinness resigned in January, toppling power-sharing in the process.

“Over the last 10 years I have worked with DUP leaders and reached out to unionists on the basis of equality, respect and reconciliation. Today is the right time to call a halt to the DUP’s arrogance,” a frail, weak-voiced McGuinness said as he resigned as deputy first minister.

Foster said on Tuesday that “his contribution helped build the relative peace we now enjoy.”

“While our differing backgrounds and life experiences inevitably meant there was much to separate us, we shared a deep desire to see the devolved institutions working to achieve positive results for everyone,” she said.

But Nadine Dories MP spoke for those who cannot forgive.

“I hope God forgives this man and grants him a place in heaven — however, it will be hard for many to shed tears upon hearing this news,” she said in a tweet.

McGuinness is survived by his wife, Bernadette, two daughters and two sons.