Many words have been and will be written about the death of Martin McGuinness because that is what his complicated life requires. He was a paramilitary leader and a politician; a butcher's boy and a deputy first minister; a father and a dedicated husband – even the security forces said so. I remember watching him being interviewed by the journalist Peter Taylor. While they were talking, a wasp landed on the face of McGuinness and he allowed it to crawl around beside his eye. He didn't flinch or attempt to swat it away. He told Taylor not to worry. This unnatural reaction said as much about the life he had led and the character it formed as any number of words.

After transferring from the official IRA to the provisionals, McGuinness, in time, became chief of staff and northern commander. He served as a member of its army council and, as the Irish Times obituary put it, 'command in any armed group surely confers responsibility for all of their violence.' Like the Reverend Ian Paisley – with whom he would form a genuine friendship and an executive – McGuiness became part of the solution in Northern Ireland by deciding he would no longer be at the cutting edge of the problem. The period of their baleful influence, however, was longer than the period of their benevolence.

For his part, McGuinness helped bring peace to Northern Ireland by means of halting the murder and torture machine that he commanded. The reasons for this had as much to do with pragmatism and exhaustion as anything more high-minded. In the tribute paid by the Irish president, Michael D Higgins, there was not even an allusion to McGuinness's past before the peace. His words would have been better saved for the passing of John Hume whose moral consistency in pursuit of a united Ireland casts McGuinness in the darkest shade, just as the peace process has allowed Sinn Fein to eclipse the SDLP.

McGuinness was born in the Bogside area of a city so grim they named it twice. Its ancient walls, prominent in unionist mythology, were physically prominent for the poor, nationalist residents of the area because they towered above them. It was here, in Northern Ireland's second city, that the iniquities of the old Stormont regime were at their most brazen. When the situation deteriorated further at the start of the Troubles, McGuinness and others concluded the best response was the armed response.

But to describe the circumstances of his early life as a tragedy leaves us without an adequate word to describe the fates suffered by those at the ends of his decision-making. Thousands of others, meanwhile, were born into the same circumstances and rose above them without resorting to violence. To suggest the path he set out was inevitable is a weak-kneed form of justification, a form of absolution that disregards the power of human agency in even the most difficult circumstances.

The paramilitary capital McGuinness collected during the Troubles was at least used to good effect as he helped Gerry Adams steer the republican movement towards peace. As Tony Blair put it, McGuinness was a formidable friend in the era of the peace process precisely because he had been such a formidable foe in the past. Achieving this change against the tide of republican memory and when many had suffered for something more was a mark of his standing within the organisation. What does it require, what is it necessary to have done, to get the bad men and the hard men to fall into line?

A full account of McGuinness's role during the years of near-civil war is impossible. It will stay in the murk of the Ulster past. But maybe that's for the best. If the fragile political institutions in Northern Ireland have any foundations they are the foundations of the blank slate, the clean start. McGuinness, Paisley and others with cause to regret their pasts were genuinely committed to making power-sharing work because it was the least bad option for two peoples hemmed in by the sea and bad history. The second half of his career, the other half of Martin McGuinness, will endure so long as Northern Ireland's political institutions do and that is no certainty. If Northern Ireland never again has cause to produce a man like McGuinness, we will know they have been at least partly successful.

Image by Bob Smith

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