The Queen has sent a private message of condolence to the widow of Martin McGuinness, after the former IRA leader passed away early today morning. Mr McGuinness was 66 years-old, and died in his sleep after suffering from a rare heart condition.
Shortly after his death, Sinn Fein, a republican political party in Ireland, issued a statement saying: “It is with deep regret and sadness that we have learnt of the death of our friend and comrade Martin McGuinness who passed away in Derry during the night. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.”
Condolences streamed in from a number of leaders and political figures, including Prime Minister Theresa May, who acknowledged that McGuinness “played a defining role in leading the Republican movement away from violence”. She said in a statement:
“First and foremost, my thoughts are with the family of Martin McGuinness at this sad time.
While I can never condone the path he took in the earlier part of his life, Martin McGuinness ultimately played a defining role in leading the Republican movement away from violence. In doing so, he made an essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace.
While we certainly didn’t always see eye-to-eye even in later years, as deputy First Minister for nearly a decade he was one of the pioneers of implementing cross community power sharing in Northern Ireland. He understood both its fragility and its precious significance and played a vital part in helping to find a way through many difficult moments.
At the heart of it all was his profound optimism for the future of Northern Ireland – and I believe we should all hold fast to that optimism today.”
Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland, also issued a statement about Mr McGuinness’s death: “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.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Prime Minister Tony Blair were also among those to mourn Mr McGuinness. “For those of us able finally to bring about the Northern Ireland peace agreement, we know we could never have done it without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future,” Mr Blair’s statement read.
“Whatever the past, the Martin I knew was a thoughtful, reflective and committed individual. Once he became the peace maker he became it wholeheartedly and with no shortage of determined opposition to those who wanted to carry on the war. 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.”
Mr McGuinness began his political career as second-in-command of the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) Derry Brigade in the early 1970s. He was believed to have been involved in Bloody Sunday, a conflict which resulted in the death of several civilians, and was constantly condemned for his commitment to the IRA’s “armed struggle”.
However, Mr McGuinness later used his position within the IRA to convince gunmen to lay down their arms and support the peace process. His efforts were considered central in bringing about the end to the nearly daily acts of violence carried out by the IRA. He was also instrumental in bringing about the IRA ceasefire in 1994 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
After his exit from the IRA, Mr McGuinness allied himself with Sinn Fein, and was their Presidential candidate in the 2011 elections. Following his defeat, he took up the role of deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
In that capacity, he met Her Majesty at a charity event in Belfast in 2012, and, in a symbolic gesture of unity, the two shook hands in public, an act that made headlines. Mr McGuinness later said: “I liked her courage in agreeing to meet with me. There’s nothing I have seen in my engagements with her that this is someone I should dislike – I like her.”
“She [The Queen] knows my history. She knows I was a member of the IRA. She knows I was in conflict with her soldiers, yet both of us were prepared to rise above all of that.”
Following the historic meeting, Mr McGuinness met The Queen again in June last year at Hillsborough Castle. When he enquired about Her Majesty’s health, she quipped: “Well, I’m still alive.”
In January this year, Mr McGuinness announced his resignation from the post of deputy First Minister in protest against the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. A few days later, he announced that he would not be standing for re-election due to ill health, and did not vote during the assembly election in March.
Martin McGuinness is survived by his wife Bernadette, and their four children.