Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness dies at 66

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, a former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland and IRA commander who was a key figure in Irish politics for five decades, has died at 66.

Ireland’s state broadcaster RTE reported his death on Tuesday and said that he had died at Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital with his family by his side.

As a young Irish Republican Army (IRA) member, he saw his mission as defending the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland against the largely pro-British Protestants who for decades dominated Northern Ireland.

For his critics, that cause was never enough to justify the IRA’s lengthy armed campaign for Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, to be united with the independent Republic of Ireland.

In 1973 he was convicted by the Irish Republic’s courts of being an IRA member after being stopped in a car packed with explosives and bullets and was briefly jailed.

He went on, though, to serve as deputy first minister of the province for a decade, during which he became known as a champion of reconciliation.

WATCH: Terrorist or freedom fighter? Martin McGuinness talks to Al Jazeera

In his later years McGuinness was hailed as a peacemaker for negotiating a 1998 peace deal, sharing power with his once bitter enemy Ian Paisley and shaking hands with the Queen, though the gestures were condemned by some former comrades as treachery.

Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole argued in January 2017 that McGuinness had been “a mass killer – during his period of membership and leadership the IRA killed 1,781 people, including 644 civilians – whose personal amiability has been essential to the peace process. If he were not a ruthless and unrepentant exponent of violence, he would never have become such a key figure in bringing violence to an end.”

Unlike his close Belfast associate, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, McGuinness never hid the fact that he had been a commander of the IRA – classed as a “terrorist organisation” by the British government.

‘Worked tirelessly for peace’

Ireland’s president, Michael D. Higgins, paid tribute to McGuinness, praising his commitment to democracy and saying his leadership would be missed in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

“As President of Ireland, I wish to pay tribute to his immense contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland – a contribution which has rightly been recognised across all shades of opinion,” he said in a statement.

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McGuinness was forced to step down in January, a number of months before a planned retirement, because of an undisclosed illness.

At the time a frail and emotional McGuinness told a large group of supporters gathered outside his home in the Bogside area of Northern Ireland’s second city that it broke his heart that he had to bow out of politics.

“I don’t really care how history assesses me, but I’m very proud of where I’ve come from,” he told RTE.

In a statement, Gerry Adams said: “He was a passionate republican who worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation and for the re-unification of his country.”

He is survived by his wife, Bernadette, and four children.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies