QUITE a substantial political void has been left within the ranks of the Sinn Féin party with the retirement of Martin McGuinness as a political representative, following his announcement that he will not be seeking re-election to the Northern Ireland Assembly on March 2nd next due to ill health. Since the Good Friday Agreement, he has been a staunch and single-minded proponent of its implementation despite many setbacks along the way and finding somebody as committed to advancing the still-fragile peace process in the North will be difficult.
Even though his resignation earlier this month as Deputy First Minister helped trigger the Assembly election that nobody really wanted, all the blame for this cannot be laid at his door, as he was dealing with a rather intransigent First Minister in Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster who stubbornly refused to step aside from her role for a few weeks while an inquiry was carried out into the so-called Cash for Ash scandal resulting from the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, which looks set to cost Northern taxpayers a lot of money.
Cynics would claim that McGuinness was going to have to stand down anyway as Deputy First Minister due to the state of his health and that he used the opportunity to put manners on Ms Foster for not following his advice to step aside while the scheme was being investigated, thereby bringing down the Assembly after only eight months. Her predecessor, Peter Robinson, had stepped aside previously, so there was a precedent.
As a strong advocate of the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly, McGuinness has to get the benefit of any doubt that his action in resigning wasn’t for any reason other than to protect the integrity of the institution, which has presided over a relatively politically-stable and peaceful period of just under ten years in the North. There is a sense that the longer it goes on, the less likely are the chances of a return to the sickening days of violence that took such a huge toll of human life from the start of the 1970s to the end of the ’90s.
And, it was from that background that the paramilitary activist Martin McGuinness emerged when basic civil rights were denied the nationalist population of Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and protest marches were violently suppressed, first by the RUC and then by the British Army, who shot dead 13 unarmed civilians during a civil rights march at the Bogside in his hometown of Derry on January 30th, 1972, the day that became known as Bloody Sunday.
This backfired badly for the British because it led to a huge surge in recruitment to the Provisional IRA with McGuinness prominent in its leadership. However distasteful this must have seemed to peace-loving people, it was something that he felt able to admit, unlike his colleague Gerry Adams who would rather have people believe that he was never a member of the IRA.
The armed struggle, over the next three decades, went to some very dark places with so many atrocities being committed and pure raw savagery abounding. Of the more than 3,500 killed during those turbulent years of ‘The Troubles,’ some 1,800 were at the hands of the IRA, so there are bound to be mixed feelings about the McGuinness legacy.
After all the violence had failed to solve anything or get the IRA any closer to their stated aim of achieving a United Ireland, the ever-pragmatic Martin McGuinness was not afraid to encourage the leadership to think outside the box and to sue for peace when overtures were made to them by the Irish and British governments and constitutional nationalists, such as John Hume, in the North. It took a while to agree a peace process and there were several setbacks along the way, but led most ably by McGuinness as head of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, it has endured, albeit precariously at times, with the help of hardline unionists such as Dr Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson whom he managed to work well with.
He had the personality and the desire to overcome all the obstacles that were put in its way and, as many commentators have noted since Martin McGuinness announced his retirement from politics, the Sinn Féin peace strategy has worked far better than the IRA’s campaign of violence ever did. Former President of Ireland and Belfast native, Mary McAleese, described his contribution to the peace process as ‘enormous,’ so there is no doubt that his influence will be missed, especially as there is no knowing what kind of difficult political scenarios the forthcoming Assembly elections may create.
Martin McGuinness’ successor, Michelle O’Neill, will have a hard act to follow and, hopefully, will strive to iron out differences and make the power-sharing executive work after the Assembly election, come what may. While he will be taking a back seat, it would be helpful, for the transition period especially, if McGuinness’ health spares him to act in a mentoring capacity, what with the added uncertainty that Britain’s triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to begin the process of leaving the European Union will bring, even though the majority of the people of Northern Ireland want to remain in it.