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Martin McGuinness, A Former IRA Leader And A Peacemaker, Dies At 66

Martin McGuinness, seen here arriving at 10 Downing Street in central London last October for meetings in his role as Northern Ireland's deputy first minister, has died at age 66.
Daniel Leal-Olivas
AFP/Getty Images
Martin McGuinness, seen here arriving at 10 Downing Street in central London last October for meetings in his role as Northern Ireland's deputy first minister, has died at age 66.

Former Irish Republican Army commander Martin McGuinness, who left violence behind to choose peace — and who eventually met Queen Elizabeth II — has died at age 66. For nearly a decade, McGuinness served as Northern Ireland's deputy first minister.

From London, NPR's Frank Langfitt reports:

"McGuinness retired from politics in January, suffering from a rare genetic disease. Today, he was lauded for his crucial role in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to Northern Ireland.

"But he was also remembered for his early days as a ruthless commander of the IRA, notorious for bombings and responsible for 1,800 killings during the so-called Troubles."

In many ways, the unusual arc of McGuinness's public life culminated in his 2012 meeting with the queen in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The two smiled and looked each other in the eye as they shook hands; both of them said it was an important moment for peace.

McGuinness met Queen Elizabeth several other times. In November, the pair shook hands and exchanged pleasantries during the unveiling of a large portrait of the monarch in London.

The encounters represented an extraordinary turn of events for a former senior leader of the IRA, the group that in 1979 used a bomb to kill Lord Louis Mountbatten, the uncle of Prince Philip and a distant cousin to the queen. Mountbatten also held leadership posts in the British armed forces.

Discussing that sort of violence, McGuinness said in 2013 that "regrettably the past cannot be changed or undone." As reported by The Irish Times, he added, "Neither can the suffering, the hurt or the violence of the conflict be disowned by Republicans or any other party to the conflict."

Responding to the death of his longtime ally, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said:

"Throughout his life Martin showed great determination, dignity and humility and it was no different during his short illness.

"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."

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said:

"I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Martin McGuinness today. His passing represents a significant loss, not only to politics in Northern Ireland but to the wider political landscape on this island and beyond.

"Martin will always be remembered for the remarkable political journey that he undertook in his lifetime. Not only did Martin come to believe that peace must prevail, he committed himself to working tirelessly to that end."

Prime Minister Theresa May released a statement saying in part:

"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."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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