Unionist leaders express appreciation for ‘indispensable’ McGuinness they once reviled

Mourners follow Martin McGuinnesss coffin as it is returned to his home in the Bogside on Tuesday afternoon
Mourners follow Martin McGuinnesss coffin as it is returned to his home in the Bogside on Tuesday afternoon

Unionist leaders past and present have expressed sincere appreciation for Martin McGuinness’s role in the peace process – and some of them spoke of their fears for the future without him.

Responding to the news of the death of a man who they once universally condemned and despised for his role in the IRA, every unionist leader publicly sent their sympathy to Mr McGuinness’s family.

Sinn Feins Michelle ONeill, Elisha McCallion and Gerry Adams lay the Irish tricolour on the coffin

Sinn Feins Michelle ONeill, Elisha McCallion and Gerry Adams lay the Irish tricolour on the coffin

But the two former First Ministers still alive – David Trimble and Peter Robinson – expressed warm recognition for the latter years of a man who both of them once vehemently condemned.

Peter Robinson, said in a statement that his former Stormont Castle colleague’s life had been “multifaceted” but that “Martin never sought to airbrush any part of his life”.

The former DUP leader said that their seven years in Stormont Castle began “after the heady euphoria of reaching agreement had faded. The honeymoon was over and we had to work the hard yards of operating the system in a manner that would instil confidence and bring delivery.

“The business of governing a divided society and coping with the endless curved balls that politics here brings tested both of us. Yet while I knew his past, as he knew mine, we never doubted or gave up our shared commitment to create a new and better era in Northern Ireland politics.

“We had the best of personal relationships – keeping in touch even after my retirement and during his illness.”

He added: “I do not believe that any other republican could have performed the role he did during this transition. In the difficult days we presently face, his influence will be greatly missed.”

Those sentiments were similar to the contents of a letter which Lord Trimble sent to Mr McGuinness on his deathbed.

In the letter, which was sent just over a week ago, he said: “On reflection, I thought it behoved me as the First Minister when we first achieved devolution to the Assembly created by the Good Friday Agreement some eighteen years ago, to say how much we appreciated all that you did to make that happen.

“In doing that you reached out to the Unionist community in a way some of them were reluctant to reach out to you.

“Without knowing the detail of how the republican movement moved to that point, I and my colleagues believed that you were indispensable.”

Of the three current unionist leaders’ statements today, the TUV’s Jim Allister was unsurprisingly the most condemnatory, stating that Mr McGuinness “lived many more decades than most of his victims”.

The Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt said that “first and foremost, we must recognise the loss to the McGuinness family and I extend my sympathies to them. Like any family they need time and space to mourn”.

But he went on to say: “This will also be a very challenging day for victims of the Troubles. I believe no-one needed to die to get Northern Ireland to where it is today. Clearly Martin McGuinness very actively disagreed with that analysis, but I also accept in his later years he was on a journey to create change through politics, becoming a pivotal figure at Stormont.

“It would be less than honest if I said other than that I found him a straight-dealing politician in any engagement I had with him.

“History will reflect a complex life story.”

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, however, offered a strikingly measured statement which did not mention the IRA or the Troubles at all.

Mrs Foster said: “First and foremost, Martin McGuinness was a much loved husband, father and grandfather. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife and the family circle at this very painful time of grief and loss.

“History will record differing views and opinions on the role Martin McGuinness played throughout the recent and not so recent past but history will also show that his contribution to the political and peace process was significant.

“He served the people of Northern Ireland as deputy first minister for nearly a decade and was pivotal in bringing the republican movement towards a position of using peaceful and democratic means.

“In recent years his contribution helped build the relative peace we now enjoy. While our differing backgrounds and life experiences inevitably meant there was much to separate us, we shared a deep desire to see the devolved institutions working to achieve positive results for everyone. I know that he believed that the institutions were the basis for building stability.”

Mrs Foster recalled a joint appearance which she and Mr McGuinness made at the opening of the Seamus Heaney Homeplace last year, noting that “he was a huge Heaney fan and I know he was particularly proud that the Executive was able to play a significant role in creating a lasting legacy to the poet he so much admired”.

She added: “Martin faced his illness with courage and, after stepping away from the glare of the public spotlight I sincerely hope he got the chance to enjoy the things he loved.”