Martin McGuinness: From IRA Leader to Peaceful Deputy First Minister

Just before he passed in 2017, Martin McGuinness resigned from his post as deputy First Minister over the Renewable Heat Initiative scandal, a mismanaged wood pellet-burning initiative that is estimated to have cost taxpayers £500 million.[1] As an investigation began, evidence suggested that this was a deliberate move by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a unionist political party in Northern Ireland favoring British identity. At the time the DUP was the largest party in Stormont.[2] Allegations emerged that implicated First Minister Arlene Foster directly in the scandal.

McGuinness and his supporters called for Arlene Foster to “stand aside” to allow for an independent inquiry. Today, Northern Ireland is going on two years with no sitting government. This, coupled with the uncertain future of Brexit and a Tory win in the December 2019 United Kingdom election, means that it is likely more time will pass until Northern Ireland again has a functioning executive. The lack of government threatens the work on both sides of the political struggle in Northern Ireland to create peace. McGuinness’s resignation created a void in Northern Irish politics. He represented a bridge between the unionists and the republicans, a hardline IRA member who crossed from political violence to treaty-making. His willingness to work with the DUP created sufficient  support for a government that worked for all communities in Northern Ireland.[3] Without McGuinness, that government fell apart.

Northern Ireland needs stable government, especially given the nation’s violent past. The need for a functioning executive makes it imperative that politicians from both sides resolve the situation. If the government crisis is not resolved correctly and the Brexit crisis continues, then a return to the violence known as “The Troubles” is a real possibility. [4]

For decades after the six counties of Ulster became “Northern Ireland,” still part of the United Kingdom, a Protestant-controlled Northern Irish government overtly and covertly oppressed their Catholics citizens, often with political support from the British. Discrimination came in the form of access to housing, education, and almost every other aspect of political and economic life. Discouraged but not defeated by these conditions, Irish Catholics—and many Protestants who disagreed with the segregationist and oppressive regime—formed the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).

“The Troubles” were a period of sectarian violence that began in the late 1960s. A few key catalyzing events increased tension from 1968-72. A NICRA protest march in Derry in October 1968 ended when Royal Ulster Constabulary officers attacked the peaceful protesters with their batons and a water-cannon hose.[5] Violence escalated in the early 1970s when soldiers from the British army opened fire on unarmed Republicans in Derry, leaving 13 dead in what is notoriously now known as the “Bloody Sunday” massacre of 30th January 1972.[6]

Martin McGuinness was a former Irish Republican Army commander who later became Sinn Féin’s chief peace negotiator in the process that led to the Good Friday Agreement. He was born on May 23rd, 1950, in the Bogside area of Derry, where much of the subsequent violence would take place. McGuinness was an acting commander of the IRA Derry Brigade on “Bloody Sunday,” one of the more senior positions in the Irish Republican Army.[7]

McGuinness himself had been turned down for a job as a car mechanic because of his religion.[8] This experience, along with seeing a “foreign army” occupying his homeland pushed the once politically apathetic man toward a violent period of his life and the fight to create a country where Irishmen are “proud and glad, of the land where they were born.”[9] For many years, dissent among Catholics had been growing across the province, and the IRA offered them a solution. The continued backlash against Catholics as they marched for a more equal partnership in the North meant that “the war came to him.”[10]

A proud Catholic, McGuinness devoted his life to reunifying Ireland, first through his commitment to guerrilla warfare and later through the ballot box. Many questions surrounded his political career in the years that followed: most importantly, whether a known commander of the Irish Republican Army could truly ever become a man of peace and political integrity?

By the year 1979, McGuinness was the IRA’s chief of staff, the most senior position in the militia organization. His leadership saw the death of Lord Mountbatten in that year during an assassination attempt of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. These crimes, along with the other atrocities carried out by the IRA, are at times difficult to understand.

Although McGuinness was never tried or convicted in relation to these violent acts, it is an open secret that he was aware of the plans and, therefore, morally culpable for the attacks.[11] And that is why the second half of Martin McGuinness’ life—his political career—is something that should be admired and used as a model for the transition from guerrilla war to peace.

How is it possible that McGuinness decided to take a different path? The journey from believing in an outright war as the only means of achieving a United Ireland to being at the fore of the peace process was extremely complex, and a few factors that likely influenced McGuinness in this direction.

For one, from the mid-1970s onward, the public increasingly recognized that Northern Ireland was moving towards a military stalemate and political stagnation.[12] This became more obvious after the Sunningdale Agreement which eventually failed to create cross-party agreement in 1975. The politicians of Sinn Féin had to look for an alternative solution to the problems that were at hand. They understood that the possibility of defeating the British Army was decreasing, as was the population’s appetite for a war that lasted for thirty years. McGuinness recognized the way that the war was playing out and entered into secret talks with the British Government that led to the “Good Friday Agreement” in 1998 and the end of the war in Ulster.[13]  

This strategic shift by McGuinness and Sinn Féin exemplifies Peter Phillips’ theory of the life cycle of terrorist organizations. Phillips argues that terrorist groups will ultimately fade away and turn to the ballot box as a means of gaining their political goals instead of continuing to pursue violent policies. Four factors contribute to the life cycle of terrorism: competition for grassroots support with the government; the importance of that support to their survival; intensity of support in open stages of battle; and the “natural” life cycle of organizations.[14]

What this suggests is that eventually terrorist organizations will either run out of support or change their policy if they do not achieve early success. Although this does not account for all terrorist groups, one finds numerous examples of this transition in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including the IRA, Tupameros, ETA, and FARC, which have all demilitarized their campaigns in order to pursue their goals through the normal channels of electoral politics.

The psyche of youth also matters. Young people tend to be more radical. Therefore, it is quite likely that McGuinness, in some regards, grew tired of being a commander in a separatist militia. Evidence also suggests that eventually, as McGuinness himself put it, most young men want to live a “normal life.”[15] He was probably no different. In the later years of the war, as peace talks had begun, McGuinness’s IRA slowly started to shift toward a period of internal deliberation. The organization was rethinking who it was, what it stood for, what it hoped to achieve, and the best means by which they could obtain these goals.

Ultimately, through the leadership of McGuinness and Gerry Adams, the IRA decided in August 1994 that a “ceasefire” and an end to their military campaign in Ulster was the best option. This move was also made possible by the willingness of members of the British Government, such as Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn, to negotiate with the IRA and usher them toward a more peaceful future.

Martin McGuinness was able to transcend the divide in Northern Ireland.[16] He successfully worked alongside DUP leaders Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson, and, until his resignation, with Arlene Foster. McGuinness was able to cross the political divide to work with the main opposition to Sinn Féin who’s support is largely Protestant people who want to see Northern Ireland remain as a part of Britain, the exact opposite to McGuinness’ desire.

This ability to put aside political differences is necessary in order to resolve the current political crisis in Northern Ireland and to restore a government to Stormont. The work of McGuinness and his peers to bring peace to Northern Ireland took many years of negotiation, and this progress is currently threatened by those unwilling to allow the investigation into the Renewable Heat Initiative scandal, which goes right to the top of the DUP party and specifically implicates their leader. With the further uncertainty of Brexit still looming, compromise is required by both parties to ensure the government of Northern Ireland can move forward and begin to help the citizens of their country.

Ruairidh Fraser is a third year-student of Political Science and History at Mercyhurst University, where he plays D2 tennis. He is originally from Stirling, Scotland. 


[1] Jayne McCormack, “RHI inquiry: The scandal that sent Stormont up in smoke,” BBC News, October 29, 2019,

[2] BBC News, “Timeline: The Renewable Heat Incentive Scandal,” BBC News, October 23, 2019.

[3] Ben Kelly, “Why Is There No Government in Northern Ireland?” The Independent, April 30, 2019, accessed on 10 December 2019, available at

[4]David Frum, “Belfast Shows the Price of Brexit,” The Atlantic, March 7 2019.

[5] “October 5, 1968: Londonderry March Ends in Violence,” BBC News, accessed on December 10, 2019, available at

[6] “January 30, 1972: Army Kills 13 in Civil Rights Protest,” BBC News, accessed on December 10, 2019, available at

[7] Anne Mchardy, “Martin McGuinness Obituary,” The Guardian, March 21, 2017, accessed on December 10, 2019, available at

[8] Matthew Taylor, “Martin McGuinness – a Timeline of His IRA and Political Life,” The Guardian, March 21, 2017, accessed on December 10, 2019, available at

[9] John Dorney, “Martin McGuinness 1950-2017” The Irish Story, March 24, 2017,; “Collection of Irish Song Lyrics,” Irish Song Lyrics – Boys of the Old Brigade, accessed October 17, 2019, available at

[10] Cormac Fitzgerald, “He didn’t go to war, war came to him’: Gerry Adams pays tribute to ally and friend Martin McGuinness,” The Journal, March 21, 2017.

[11] Brett Campbell, “Martin McGuinness Responsible for Murder of Mountbatten, Says Ex-Provo,”, August 17, 2019, accessed on December 10, 2019, available at

[12] “The Troubles in Northern Ireland – a Brief Overview,” Ireland Calling, accessed November 6, 2019, available at

[13] Matthew Taylor, “Martin McGuinness – a Timeline of His IRA and Political Life,” The Guardian, March 21, 2017,accessed on December 10, 2019, available at

[14] Peter Phillips, “The Life Cycle of Terrorist Organisations,” International Advances in Economic Research, 17 (2011), 369–385.

[15] Martin McGuinness, Interview at Summer Madness, YouTube, October 14, 2015, accessed on December 10, 2019, available at

[16] Martin McGuinness, Interview with The Journal, “I fought against the British Army on the streets of Derry,” Youtube, March 22, 2017, accessed on 29th November 2019, available at