Martin McGuinness leaves behind a complicated legacy, uncertain future

Thousands, including former US President Bill Clinton and other world leaders, crowded Londonderry, Northern Ireland today, to attend the funeral of Martin McGuinness.

Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
The grandson of Martin McGuinness, Dulta, has his coat adjusted during McGuinness's funeral at Saint Columba's Church in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on March 23, 2017.

Martin McGuinness, a former Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader and politician, will be laid to rest on Thursday in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

Crowds of mourners gathered days ahead of the funeral to mark his passing. Among them were many dignitaries, including former US President Bill Clinton.

But for many, Mr. McGuinness's legacy is a complicated one. As a younger man, he was involved in terrorist operations that would define The Troubles conflict in the latter half of the 20th century. But by his later years, as a Northern Ireland official, he had acquired the reputation of a peacemaker working to unify the British province with Ireland through lawful means.

This ambivalence was reflected by many who attending the funeral, including Arlene Foster, leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist party.

"Having worked with Martin McGuinness for almost a decade, I want to pay my respects to his family on the occasion of his death," Ms. Foster wrote in an op-ed for the Belfast Telegraph.

"I recognize that some will be critical of my decision to attend this funeral and I respect their view," she added. "People will be familiar with how my home experienced the Troubles in a very direct way. My childhood memories of Martin McGuinness are not pleasant. He was part of an organization responsible for the murder of many neighbors and friends."

Yet McGuinness also became a significant advocate for peace by the end of the conflict, becoming a primary voice of the Sinn Féin during the negotiations that would lead to the Good Friday agreement signed in 1998, as Jason Walsh wrote for The Christian Science Monitor earlier in the week:

McGuinness’s journey from gunman to statesman was real. Unlike [fellow Sinn Féin leader Gerry] Adams, who has been dogged by accusations that he authorized the murder of Jean McConville, one of the most controversial killings in the Irish conflict, McGuinness was widely viewed in a more sympathetic light, particularly as he was from, and active in, Derry during the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, when 26 unarmed civilians were shot, 14 of them fatally, by British soldiers. Having left school with no qualifications, McGuinness was, in today’s parlance, "radicalized" in the febrile atmosphere of Northern Ireland in the 1960s. By the time he became minister, McGuinness had effectively switched places with Adams, becoming the more trusted and less feared of the two.

"When he decided to fight for peace, Martin was calm, courageous, and direct," former President Clinton said in a statement. "And when he gave his word, that was as good as gold. As Sinn Féin's chief negotiator, his integrity and willingness to engage in principled compromise were invaluable in reaching the Good Friday Agreement.... He believed in a shared future, and refused to live in the past, a lesson all of us who remain should learn and live by. May he rest in peace."

The death of McGuinness came just weeks after nationalists ended the pro-British unionist majority in the Parliament of Northern Ireland for the first time, as worries about Brexit come to a head in the region.

"It's a big change and I think there'll be rough waters ahead," said Irish nationalist Edmund Gillespie. "There won't be the steady hand that there had been through all the years since the Good Friday Agreement ... and there will be a lot of people trying to take advantage."

Dignitaries attending the funeral of McGuinness include Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Enda Kenny and former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, as well as past and present Northern Ireland officials including Secretary of State James Brokenshire, former politician John Hume, Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable George Hamilton, and former First Minister Peter Robinson.

This article contains material from Reuters.

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