May offers condolences for McGuinness death as NI Assembly holds special sitting

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London.
Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London.

Prime Minister Theresa May offered her condolences in the House of Commons for the death of Martin McGuinness, as a special sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly got under way to remember the life of the former Sinn Fein deputy first minister.

Mrs May told MPs she could not “condone or justify” the part played by Mr McGuinness in the Troubles, but hailed his “indispensable” role in moving the Republican movement away from violence to democratic methods.

With Stormont still without a powersharing executive or new Speaker in the wake of the recent snap election, traditional protocols have been overridden to mark Mr McGuinness’s death on Tuesday at the age of 66.

Events at Parliament Buildings will play out as preparations for Mr McGuinness’s funeral intensify in his native Londonderry.

The IRA commander-turned-political leader died in the early hours of Tuesday after a short illness. A Requiem Mass will be held in Derry on Thursday afternoon.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, Mrs May said: “I would like to express my condolences to the family and colleagues of the former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness.

Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Mike Nesbitt pays tribute to Martin McGuinness during a special sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly

Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Mike Nesbitt pays tribute to Martin McGuinness during a special sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly

“Of course, we do not condone or justify the path he took in the earlier part of his life, and we should never forget that, nor the victims of terrorism.

“However, as my noble friend Lord Trimble set out yesterday, he played an indispensable role in bringing the Republican movement away from violence to peaceful and democratic means and to building a better Northern Ireland.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told the Commons: “Martin played an immeasurable role in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland, and it’s that peace we all want to endure.”

On Tuesday night thousands of people gathered to pay tribute at a candlelit vigil in the republican heartland of west Belfast.

First Minister Arlene Foster pays tribute to Martin McGuinness during a special sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

First Minister Arlene Foster pays tribute to Martin McGuinness during a special sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Crowds held black flags aloft and sang the republican ballad I Wish I Was Back Home In Derry.

The sombre event off the Falls Road happened hours after crowds in Derry accompanied the Sinn Fein veteran’s coffin on his final journey home to his beloved Bogside neighbourhood.

Mr McGuinness, who died from a rare heart condition, completed an extraordinary political journey from an IRA leader in Derry to sharing power and a remarkable friendship with his erstwhile foe, Democratic Unionist leader Dr Ian Paisley.

He also struck up a warm relationship with the Queen, whom he praised for her contribution to peace. She is to send a personal message to Mr McGuinness’s family.

The Sinn Fein stalwart is survived by his wife Bernie and four children.

Mr McGuinness’s last major act as a politician was to pull down the powersharing executive at Stormont when he resigned as deputy first minister in January in protest at the DUP’s handling of a green energy scandal.

The move forced Mrs Foster from office and 10 days later, showing signs of physical frailty, Mr McGuinness announced his retirement from frontline politics due to ill health.