Martin McGuinness, a former leader of the Irish Republican Army-turned-Northern Ireland’s senior statesman, has resigned as deputy prime minister. His decision creates a vacuum in Northern Irish politics that will be hard to fill. McGuinness made an extraordinary transition from terrorist to politician, winning the respect of almost all along the way.
McGuinness joined the IRA in 1970, rising to the position of second-in-command. As politics took precedence over direct action, McGuinness joined with Gerry Adams to lead Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political ally, and eventually became the party’s chief negotiator in the peace talks that culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. He became first deputy prime minister as part of the power-sharing arrangement the deal created, serving in that post with great success for nearly a decade.
McGuinness had planned to step down in May, after marking 10 years in office, to make way for a younger generation of Northern Irish politicians. His departure was accelerated by a dispute with First Minister Arlene Foster over a green energy plan that had been abused by recipients; his resignation obliged the government to call an election for March 1. McGuiness’s then-acknowledged health problems would keep him from standing in that ballot.
Announcing his decision to step down, McGuinness revealed the Adams would also be retiring, which would mean that the March election would mark the first time that the Irish nationalist party would not be led by individuals who had been directly involved in the three bitter decades of violence that scarred Northern Ireland and resulted in 3,600 deaths.
For many, McGuinness’ political career was nothing short of remarkable. He forged a close working relationship with his former enemy Ian Paisley, the Protestant cleric who became first minister, and provided a powerful moral force for reconciliation when he shook hands with Queen Elizabeth in 2012. McGuinness set a powerful example for all Northern Irish politicians and he will be missed, no matter who replaces him.