Martin McGuinness, the Irish Republican Army commander who led his underground, paramilitary movement toward reconciliation with Britain, and was Northern Ireland's deputy first minister for a decade in a power-sharing government, has died, his Sinn Fein party announced today on Twitter. He was 66.
The party said he died after a short illness. He suffered from amyloidosis, a rare disease with a strain specific to Ireland's northwest. 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.
McGuinness' 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 Belfast associate, Sinn Fein leader Gerry 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.
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