Martin McGuinness: From militant to presidential candidate

18th September 2011, Comments 0 comments

Sinn Fein's decision to nominate Martin McGuinness as its first ever candidate for the Irish presidency marks the next stage in his remarkable transformation from paramilitary to peaceful politician.

The Northern Ireland deputy first minister was a leading member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during its bloody campaign against British rule of the province, in which 3,500 people died in three decades of sectarian violence.

But McGuinness also played a major role in establishing peace, from negotiating the landmark Good Friday Agreement in 1998 to sharing power with Sinn Fein's one-time bitter foes, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), in Belfast.

The man described as a ruthless commander is now a statesman who rubs shoulders with prime ministers and presidents.

Such is the 61-year-old's transformation that a Presbyterian minister, David Latimer, is one of those supporting his campaign for the Irish presidential election on October 27, saying he is a "great leader".

James Martin Pacelli McGuinness was born in 1950 in Londonderry in Northern Ireland, and as a teenager became involved in the civil rights movement. He joined socialists Sinn Fein, now the main Catholic republican party, in 1970.

He became a member of the IRA and had risen to its second-in-command in Derry by the time of "Bloody Sunday", the notorious day on January 30, 1972, when 13 unarmed civil rights protesters were shot dead by British soldiers.

Although McGuinness escaped detention by the British in Northern Ireland, he was jailed in the Republic of Ireland in 1973 after being caught with 250 pounds (113 kilogrammes) of explosives and nearly 5,000 rounds of ammunition in a car.

At his trial, where he received a six-month sentence, he proudly declared his membership of the IRA, saying: "We have fought against the killing of our people. I am a member of Oglaigh na hEireann (the IRA) and very, very proud of it."

Years later in May 2001, after McGuinness became a politician, he spoke of his membership of the IRA with a level of honesty that few of his Sinn Fein colleagues have matched and which has removed some of the toxicity from his past.

However, he will still face many questions on the presidential campaign trail about his time in the IRA, including about his alleged involvement in the murder of informers, and claims that he spied for the British.

McGuinness moved into politics relatively early, becoming one of five Sinn Fein members elected to the short-lived Northern Ireland assembly in 1982.

He was involved in secret talks with British officials between 1990 and 1993, and after the IRA ceasefire of 1994, became Sinn Fein's chief negotiator in the painstaking talks that led to the landmark 1998 Good Friday peace accords.

When a power-sharing government was established in 2007, McGuinness was appointed deputy first minister, working closely with First Minister Ian Paisley, the firebrand Protestant preacher who led the staunchly pro-British DUP.

The two men surprised many by striking up a warm relationship, and McGuinness has continued good working ties with Paisley's successor, Peter Robinson.

McGuinness enjoys fly-fishing, and his condemnation of violence in his soft Derry accent have earned him death threats from the paramilitaries he once led.

The father of four has repeatedly condemned attacks by dissident republicans opposed to the peace process, and his outrage at the murder of two British soldiers in Northern Ireland in 2009 was seen as a bold step.

McGuinness is only the third favourite to win the Irish presidential vote, but victory would bring the ultimate test of his republicanism -- welcoming members of the British royal family to Ireland.

He said this weekend he would be willing to do that, adding: "The past is a terrible place but I think I am seen very much as a part of the future."

© 2011 AFP

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