Martin McGuinness's last political act was to usher in another new era

The Sinn Fein leader, who died last night, was one of the most significant politicians in the UK and Ireland for a generation.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
21 March 2017

Martin McGuinness, Ian Paisley and Alex Salmond in 2008. By Scottish Government - Scotland and Northern Ireland, CC BY 2.0,

It's a cliche to say that someone's death marks the passing of an era. But in Martin McGuinness' case, it is literally true. Strategic to the last, he used his resignation – as he descended into grave illness, from which, last night, he died – to trigger an election in Northern Ireland which ended a century of unionist domination.

Of course, it's not the first new era he's ushered in. McGuinness and his generation – on both sides of the divide – led their communities out of civil war, and into the difficult terrain of uncomfortable peace. They are perhaps the most significant politicians in recent decades in these islands, and will surely be remembered long after most of their contemporaries in London and Dublin are forgotten.

McGuinness, a lifelong Irish Republican whose politics were cast in the anti-Catholic bigotry of 20th century Northern Ireland, was a senior figure in the IRA throughout his early life, and accused of involvement in a number of bombings. He went on to be a key figure in the peace process, and ultimately, as a Sinn Fein politician, Northern Ireland's deputy first minister from 2007 until January this year, when, facing fast-declining health, he resigned over the Democratic Unionist Party's Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. Throughout this period, he served alongside Unionist first ministers – Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster. His relationship with Paisley, a hard line unionist also key to the peace process, was so good that they were famously known as "the Chuckle Brothers".

In the election that followed his resignation, the Unionist vote collapsed, with McGuinness' Sinn Fein coming within one seat of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the total number of Nationalists equalling the total number of Unionists for the first time since the partition of Ireland in 1921. The result was in part a product of deep fears in Northern Ireland that Brexit will bring with it a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, and that this in turn endangers the peace that McGuinness and his generation built.

Martin McGuinness died last night in hospital, reportedly surrounded by his family. He was said to be suffering from a rare heart condition.

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