Martin McGuinness, the Irish Republican Army chieftain who turned away from violence to forge bonds with Northern Ireland’s Protestants, was laid to rest Thursday in a cross-community service that illustrated the new alliances forged by the region’s slow-blooming peace process.
Tens of thousands lined the streets of McGuinness’ native Bogside district of Londonderry as Sinn Fein party colleagues, IRA veterans, family members and lifelong friends took turns carrying his Irish flag-draped casket from the McGuinness home to the gates of the city’s oldest Catholic church.
The sea of mournful faces represented the greatest show of Irish republican grief since the 1981 funeral for IRA hunger strike leader Bobby Sands, whose election to British Parliament inspired Sinn Fein to start contesting elections in an early step toward peace.
Thursday’s ceremony was unlike any ever held before for an IRA leader — because of who attended it.
Police commanders, Protestant leaders and the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland joined Irish presidents and prime ministers past and present in the pews. None would have attended an IRA-related funeral in decades past, when masked gunmen typically fired fusillades over a coffin and Sinn Fein found itself alone.
No IRA trappings were present as two Protestant church ministers and former U.S. President Bill Clinton took turns eulogising a man who had long topped Britain’s list of terrorists.
Clinton said McGuinness played a pivotal role in the IRA’s 27-year campaign of violence, led Sinn Fein’s negotiating team that shaped the Good Friday peace accord of 1998, became the top Irish Catholic in the region’s unity government — and noted the irony of it all.
“After all the breath he expended cursing the British over the years, he worked with two prime ministers and shook hands with the queen,” Clinton said in a coffin-side address that offered moments of levity.
The former American president called on others to emulate McGuinness’ role in driving post-war reconciliation.
He appealed to Sinn Fein and the major Protestant-backed party, the Democratic Unionists, to repair their relations and to revive the Catholic-Protestant government at the heart of the Good Friday deal. He singled out the attendance of Democratic Unionist Party chief Arlene Foster, whose frosty relations with McGuinness helped to trigger January’s collapse of their unity government. Foster had openly debated whether to attend.
He noted that Foster’s childhood was “marked in painful ways by the troubles,” a reference to the IRA’s attempt to kill her policeman father in their rural home and her own survival of an IRA bombing of a school bus. The overwhelmingly Catholic crowd applauded as he thanked Foster for coming.
Clinton praised McGuinness as a leader able to grow beyond what he called “a time of rage and resentment” and pursue policies anathema to the IRA. Those included McGuinness’ acceptance of police authority, his role in helping to govern a Northern Ireland state that the IRA long pledged to destroy, and his rejection of IRA splinter groups still trying to upset the peace.
“He risked the wrath of his comrades and the rejection of his adversaries,” Clinton said. “He made honorable compromises and was strong enough to keep them, and came to be trusted because his word was good.”
Following the two-hour service, a hearse carried McGuinness’ coffin to a special section of the City Cemetery reserved for IRA and Sinn Fein figures.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams delivered a graveside oration in which he, too, appealed for renewed reconciliation efforts by both sides. Dublin folk singer Christy Moore played an acoustic rendition of one of McGuinness’ favourite songs, “Back Home in Derry.”