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The search for peace
Martin McGuinness
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Martin McGuinness

For years, leading unionists variously labelled Martin McGuinness a member of the IRA's Army Council and, on one occasion, the "IRA godfather of godfathers".

These accusations remained a largely academic exercise: those levelling the charge were unlikely to ever prove it and Martin McGuinness, convicted of IRA membership in the Republic, was equally unlikely to persuade them to believe otherwise.

So it came as a shock to many – though perhaps not a surprise to those who have watched his political development – when Mr McGuinness announced in 2001 that he had indeed been a senior IRA commander in Londonderry in the 1970s.

That move came after months of speculation about what he would tell the inquiry into the Bloody Sunday shootings of 1972.

His critics denounced the decision to reveal his past as a political calculation – why are no other senior republicans prepared to talk about their own pasts, they ask.

Others said that it was a logical next step for a former paramilitary who has publicly made overtures about leaving Northern Ireland’s bloody past behind.

Mr McGuinness, along with Gerry Adams, has been one half of the most influential partnership in the modern Republican movement.

Together and aided by a small tightly-knit group of other senior republicans, they drove the twin-track approach of developing a political voice as the armed wing directed violence against its enemies.

It is this history that sparked uproar among many unionists when Mr McGuinness was appointed Northern Ireland's education minister in November 1999.

Mr McGuinness says that he turned to republicanism after witnessing the 1960s government repression of the nationalist community and its failure to prevent the escalating violence that destroyed the civil rights movement.

When the Provisional IRA emerged in 1969 and 1970, Mr McGuinness joined and soon rose through its ranks.

By 1971 he is thought to have been made the 21-year-old commander of "Free Derry" and he appeared at a Provisional IRA press conference where the new leadership offered to talk peace.

He avoided internment - but not conviction for terrorism related offences in the Republic.

Since then, Martin McGuinness has remained at the forefront of the Republican movement. His first meeting with British politicians came in July 1972 when the Provisional leadership also including a young Gerry Adams - was secretly taken to London for what turned out to be failed talks.

Mr McGuinness was elected to the short-lived assembly of the early 1980s and by the middle of the decade, he and Gerry Adams had stamped their authority across the bulk of the movement.

In the 1990s, he revealed the British government had, through an intermediary and himself, been exchanging information with the IRA leadership. His support for the twin-track approach bore fruit when he won one of Sinn Fein's two Westminster seats in the 1997 General Election, a critical victory for the strategy.

Characterised as a dispassionate strategist, Mr McGuinness became Sinn Fein's chief negotiator in the Good Friday Agreement talks. Along with Gerry Adams, he remains one of the movement's two public faces.

Following election to the new Northern Ireland assembly, Sinn Fein nominated Mr McGuinness to be one of its two ministers and he later became the first named "linkman" between the arms decommissioning body and the IRA.

On trial in the Republic in 1973, he said: "We have fought against the killing of our people. I am a member of Oglaigh na Eireann (IRA) and very, very proud of it."

Irrespective of what position he now holds within the movement, his Republican credentials have remained as impeccable to this day.

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