What we can learn from Martin McGuinness' journey from paramilitary to political leader

Caitlin Morrison
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Martin McGuinness created another legacy for himself when he took up his role in politics (Source: Getty)

The messages of support for Martin McGuinness as he quits the world of politics show how much of a turnaround the former Northern Irish deputy first minister has made.

McGuinness’ past as an IRA member is well-known – and is neither forgiven nor forgotten – but during his tenure as one of Northern Ireland’s leading politicians he carved out a new place in history.

After he announced yesterday that he will not stand in the upcoming elections due to ill health, Prime Minister Theresa May paid tribute to McGuinness’ political career.

“We recognise his work over many years securing a number of significant political agreements,” she said.

“He played a key role in moving the Republican movement towards a position of using peaceful and democratic means. I want to send him best wishes for his retirement."

This statement would have been unimaginable 20 years ago and shows how far behind McGuinness left his past as part of a violent parliamentary organisation – something he did by treating his new role with the gravitas it required.

He put aside his vast differences with Ian Paisley so as to work constructively on the significant issues still facing the region, to the point where the pair referred to each other as friends by the time Paisley passed away in 2014. Indeed, Paisley’s son last night thanked McGuinness and praised his "remarkable journey (that) not only saved lives, but made the lives of countless people better".

It’s not difficult to see the lesson that can – and should – be learned from McGuinness’ legacy at Stormont. At a time when the UK is hugely divided over the biggest upheaval it has faced in decades, leaders need to take their jobs seriously, forget about what divides parties or countries from one another and concentrate on working for the good of the people they represent.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Donald Trump today reaches the end of a journey during which he has at times shown a stunning lack of respect for the role he’s about to undertake. Trump’s inauguration will play out against a backdrop of protests against his election, and his continued tweeting of often petty insults aimed at the media, entertainers and other politicians shows he has some way to go with regard to lending his office the dignity it deserves.

But railing against something that’s already happened is also undignified, and worse, pointless. Brexit is happening, and Trump will be President. What matters now is creating a new legacy – and Martin McGuinness’ journey shows this can be achieved, however unlikely a prospect it may seem in the beginning.

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