Martin McGuinness funeral: Divisions fall away in salute to unique and complex man

Derry has seen been moved by many Republican funerals through the decades of strife and conflict, but today's spectacle was bigger than any one tradition, writes Mick Clifford of the Irish Examiner.

Martin McGuinness was seen off as a favourite son of this intimate city, rather than a Republican leader. Divisions fell away as those from all traditions came together to salute a unique and complex man.

The most obvious sign of the journey Martin McGuinness travelled was apparent in the streets around the Bogside and down to Long Tower church where throngs awaited his coffin. There wasn’t a policeman in sight. Where in the world would you find a city brought to a standstill by any event without sight of a police uniform to control and protect?

There was a time when the police kept their distance at Republican funerals, congregating on the periphery in case violence erupted. Today was different. Control of the streets was ceded to Sinn Fein, but with it so was trust. Those, led by McGuinness, who once sought to tear down the northern statelet, are now part of it, on their terms, and that more than anything is his lasting legacy.

They carried him from his home in the heart of the Bogside, down Westland Street, where the past loomed on murals of Sands and Mandela and hunger strikers, past a pole with a faded poster demanding “Brits out now IRA”, beneath a tattered flag. They carried him around the Free Derry corner, where the ghosts of Bloody Sunday serve to remind of how once the state had condemned Catholics, and how far everybody has come.

Applause rose and fell as they carried the body of McGuinness along, all the way up to the Long Tower church, inside which the likes of Bill Clinton, Enda Kenny, Micahel D Higgins, Mary McAleese, Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen, Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson had been corralled. Leaders past and present were sitting there for nearly an hour waiting for the gunman turned politician to darken the church door.

Also among them was John Hume, refusing to allow ill heath keep him from saluting a man who had taken a very different path to his. When McGuinness had been a teenager, Hume had been asked to persuade him not to go the way of the gun, but McGuinness paid Hume no heed. The teenager had to find his own way, and while that eventually brought him down alleys where lay moral degradation, he had in the latter half of his life found a way back.

Hume’s presence was also a reminder that contrary to the attempted rewriting of history, the path followed by McGuinness was not the only route to fight the injustices of a sectarian state. Hume suffered too, but he never attempted to justify the taking of human life in pursuit of equality and justice.

Fr Michael Canney did not attempt to sugarcoat the deceased’s full legacy.

“I have had many conversations with Martin down through the years and he knew only too well how many people struggled with his IRA past,” the priest said in his homily.

“Republicans were not blameless, and many people right across the community find it difficult to forgive and impossible to forget.”

Bill Clinton gave a fitting farewell to the deceased as the conclusion of the mass when he declared that McGuinness had “never stopped being who he was…a passionate believer in a free, secure, self governing Ireland…” but along the way, McGuinness had “expanded the definition of us and shrunk the definition of them”.

Outside the church the people of Derry and beyond listened to this former leader of the free world eulogise one of their own, a man who had travelled so far without ever leaving The Bogside.

They carried him out after Clinton’s words. Outside, the times were reflected once more with a guard of honour, not of men in dark glasses and berets, but the elected representatives of Sinn Fein, north and south.

Once again, the cortege took to the hills that define the city, up again through The Bogside, into The Creggan to the cemetary that looks down on Free Derry.

It was to here that McGuinness had accompanied so many who had died through the darkest days of The Troubles, and it was to here that others had been dispatched by the violence he had pursued with as much vigour as he subsequently did peace.

“This week Ireland lost a hero,” Gerry Adams said at the graveside. “Derry lost a son. Sinn Fein lost a leader and I lost a dear friend and a comrade.”

Adams managed to evoke the personal life of the dead man, but he also made a point of noting that McGuinness did not fall off a horse on the road to Damascus.

“There was not a bad Martin McGuinness or a good Martin McGuinness. There was simply a man, like every other decent man or woman, doing his best.”

As they put him in the ground today, the abiding image was from a few short months ago, the day he decided that his health had prematurely brought his time in politics to an end.

He bade farewell to the people of the Bogside that night, down the hill from his now final resting place, telling the crowd that it broke his heart to concede that he would no longer represent their interests.

“My heart is in the Bogside and with the people of Derry,” he said. He was of the city, uniquely so. And he is entitled to the assessment of those who point out that it was not how he started out but how he finished that really matters.


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