Why they came to pay respects to McGuinness: The mourners, young and old

The coffin of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness is carried up Barrack Street ahead of his funeral at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The coffin of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness is carried up Barrack Street ahead of his funeral at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The streets outside St Columba’s church were crammed with thousands of people on Thursday during Martin McGuinness’s funeral.

The News Letter spoke to those who had come out to pay their respects to the Sinn Fein politician, to ask their views on the man past and present.

Marie and Noel Moore, outside St Columba's church in Londonderry during the funeral service for Martin McGuinness. By Ben Lowry

Marie and Noel Moore, outside St Columba's church in Londonderry during the funeral service for Martin McGuinness. By Ben Lowry

Standing near the church were a couple from the city, Noel and Marie Moore, who had warm words for McGuinness. Noel, at 65 a year younger than the famous republican, had known him before he was in the IRA. “Then everything was kicking off,” he recalled, saying that 1972 was most turbulent year.

Was McGuinness widely known to be an IRA leader by then?

Yes, said Noel. “After Bloody Sunday, people ran to join the IRA,” he recalls, although he did not himself join.

Noel had a cousin, William McKinney, who was killed on that day. And his brother Richard, was blinded by a British Army rubber bullet later that year at the age of 10, ultimately founding the Children in Crossfire charity.

Yvonne Graham, 45, and Lexey McGuinness, 58, outside St Columba's church. By Ben Lowry

Yvonne Graham, 45, and Lexey McGuinness, 58, outside St Columba's church. By Ben Lowry

“I thought him a wild nice fella,” said Noel of Mr McGuinness, while Marie described him as “a great Irishman”.

Asked about the view that Mr McGuinness was a terrorist, she replied: “It is understandable that people became terrorists in those days.

“We lived though it, we lived in the injustice.

“After Bloody Sunday, there was turmoil. There were a lot of Army raids. My house was raided – we were married with two children and had no affiliation to anyone.” She added: “They were ignorant as soldiers would be. It felt like it was us against them.”

Conor Edwards and Leo Deehan, both 18 and both from Lumen Christi grammar school, outside St Columba's church in Londonderry during the funeral service for Martin McGuinness. March 23 2017 By Ben Lowry

Conor Edwards and Leo Deehan, both 18 and both from Lumen Christi grammar school, outside St Columba's church in Londonderry during the funeral service for Martin McGuinness. March 23 2017 By Ben Lowry

Another couple standing nearby on Thursday – Lexey McGuinness, 58, and Yvonne Graham, 54 – had similarly glowing thoughts about Mr McGuinness.

Lexey, who said he was a “Sinn Fein activist” through the Troubles, met Mr McGuinness at the height of the violence when he was aged 14.

“He was the Nelson Mandela of Derry,” he recalled. “There will never, ever be another Martin McGuinness. What he did for the people. He brought us to where we are today.”

Lexey remembers Bloody Sunday clearly, even though he was so young. “It was horrific. I was in the Bogside. I can hear the shooting to this day.”

Conal Gilliland, 18  from Lumen Christi grammar school, outside St Columba's church in Londonderry during the funeral service for Martin McGuinness. By Ben Lowry

Conal Gilliland, 18 from Lumen Christi grammar school, outside St Columba's church in Londonderry during the funeral service for Martin McGuinness. By Ben Lowry

Asked about the criticism of Mr McGuinness’s violence, Lexey replied: “War is war. He fought for the people. For a peaceful and democratic way.”

With Yvonne nodding agreement, he added: “It is a very different place now. We are not second class citizens any more.”

Asked about the attendance of Arlene Foster at the funeral, Lexey replied: “That is her decision. If it is to help the peace, so well be.”

Among the many people from the younger generation present on Thursday, the News Letter spoke to a group of boys from Lumen Christi grammar school, all aged 18.

They agreed that people of their age group overwhelmingly support Sinn Fein now.

One of the boys, Leo Deehan from Culmore, is just such a supporter. “Today is a historic event in our city,” he said.

“Martin McGuinness was a huge figure in Northern Ireland in the peace process.”

Asked about the Sinn Fein man’s violent past, he said that “people need to move on”.

Leo would like to see a united Ireland but said he isn’t too bothered about it. “It is time for change,” he said.

Conor Edwards, who like Leo hopes to go to Queen’s University next year, is an SDLP voter. He said of Mr McGuinness: “He did bad things and good things, but either way was a huge part of the community so you have to respect that.”

Asked his own view on Irish unity, Conor said: “It is fine the way it is, but if it is united that is fine by me too.”

A further boy from the group, Conal Gilliland, said he would vote for the Alliance Party. “Alliance is the future,” he said.

Conal said of Mr McGuinness: “I am here because it is historic. There were two Martins – what he was and what he became.”

While he thinks that the former deputy first minister did much for the peace process, Conal adds: “I am not going to in the slightest condone his actions in the past.”

Conal thinks a united Ireland is “more likely” as a result of Brexit.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Other McGuinness reports by Ben Lowry

McGuinness travelled a long way but his was so ruthless that it cannot be ignored

Dignitaries are asked about SF man’s violent past

Thousands filled the streets in homage to their departed hero