Once reviled as ‘Britain’s number one terrorist’, Martin McGuinness was yesterday mourned as a statesman, with the Queen sending a private message of sympathy to his widow.
Yesterday Northern Ireland wakened to news of the death of a man whose actions have defined much of Northern Irish life for more than four decades – first as an IRA commander, and then as a senior Stormont minister.
In a statement at 6.31am yesterday, Sinn Fein said: “It is with deep regret and sadness that we have learnt of the death of our friend and comrade Martin McGuinness who passed away in Derry during the night. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.”
The 66-year-old Sinn Fein veteran, who in weakened health dramatically resigned as deputy first minister just two months ago, is understood to have died of a rare heart condition which had seen him hospitalised for some time and left him unable to vote in person in the election a fortnight ago.
Once reviled by unionists as a man dedicated to the destruction of Northern Ireland and responsible for some of the most barbaric atrocities of the Troubles, yesterday unionist leaders expressed appreciation for his latter years.
Former first ministers David Trimble and Peter Robinson described Mr McGuinness as a crucial figure to making the post-1998 settlement work and both expressed concerns for the future now that he has gone.
Some IRA victims also spoke with forgiveness about a man whose actions had brought them heartache but who they recognised as having given up violence and attempted to make Northern Ireland work.
Other victims denounced him for taking to his grave secrets about war crimes which in some cases still define their lives decades later. Former Cabinet minister Norman Tebbit, whose wife was paralysed, said he hopes Mr McGuinness is “parked in a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of hell”.
Last night in Belfast Mr McGuinness was mourned by thousands of people at a candle-lit vigil just off the Falls Road in west Belfast while a celebratory bonfire was lit in the loyalist Sandy Row area of south Belfast.
At the Falls Road event, the crowd sang the republican ballad “I wish I was back home in Derry” and prominent local priest Gary Donegan told them: “Martin was a hero in life and a hero in death.”
Sinn Fein MP for west Belfast Paul Maskey told the crowds: “Martin fought for justice, equality and respect. He was a patriot, a peace maker and a reconciler.”
Yesterday afternoon Mr McGuinness’s Tricolour-draped coffin returned to his native Bogside in Londondery.
As snow fell, crowds followed in the biting cold as the coffin was carried by the father-of-four’s widow, Bernie, and senior republicans, including Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, northern leader Michelle O’Neill and Mr McGuinness’s former colleague both in the IRA and in Stormont, Raymond McCartney.
Mr Adams told journalists that he had received a text message on Thursday night and rushed to Londonderry but when he arrived Mr McGuinness was dead.
He said: “We are very, very sad that we lost him overnight.”
Despite the dramatic impact of Mr McGuinness’s death, the talks at Stormont – aimed at putting together an Executive before Monday’s deadline – continued yesterday.
Prime Minister Theresa May had already been due to visit Northern Ireland tomorrow. If that visit goes ahead, it will now coincide with Mr McGuinness’s funeral.
The Assembly will meet today at noon for a special sitting in which MLAs will be able to publicly comment on Mr McGuinness’s life.
The sitting will not be a formal plenary session – sitting as such would have required that the first item of business was the election of a Speaker, something which could have caused a political row – but a ‘non-plenary sitting’ called by the outgoing Speaker, Robin Newton.
Mr Newton, a DUP MLA, said: “It would be entirely wrong if the Assembly in which Martin McGuinness has been a central figure since its creation in 1998, did not have the opportunity to mark his passing.
“Therefore, I will be inviting MLAs to gather in the Assembly Chamber at noon tomorrow when I will lead an opportunity for Members to pay their tributes and offer condolences.”
He added: Regardless of the different ways in which individual Assembly Members regarded his politics, there is no doubt that today we have lost one of the most significant figures from our politics in the last decades and it is only fitting that Members of the Assembly should come together to recognise his contribution.”