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Martin McGuinness, Irish Rebel Turned Politician, Dies At 66

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now let's remember a man who evolved from militant to peacemaker. His name was Martin McGuinness. He was a member of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland. Later he helped to bring that conflict to an end. And now he has died of a rare genetic disease at age 66. NPR's Frank Langfitt has his story.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: McGuinness' passing was met with restrained praise in Northern Ireland and beyond, praise for his pivotal role in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that created a power-steering arrangement and brought peace to the North, as described in this Irish broadcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: After two years of talks and after a generation of bloodshed...

LANGFITT: McGuinness went into politics, becoming Northern Ireland's deputy first minister. But praise today was tempered by McGuinness' earlier history as a ruthless commander of the IRA, an organization responsible for 1,800 killings during the so-called Troubles.

In a statement this morning, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May remembered McGuinness this way. While I can never condone the path he took in the earlier part of his life, Martin McGuinness ultimately played a defining role in leading the Republican movement away from violence. In doing so, he made an essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace.

And what a journey it was for McGuinness, who, in the 1970s, rejected any talk of a political solution in Northern Ireland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN MCGUINNESS: We don't believe that winning elections or winning any amount of votes will bring freedom in Ireland. At the end of the day, it will be the cutting edge of IRA which will bring freedom.

LANGFITT: McGuinness was widely thought to have directed terrorist attacks, which he denied. Publicly, though, he pledged endless war until the British were driven out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCGUINNESS: Our position is clear, and it will never, never, never change. The war against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved.

LANGFITT: But the British didn't leave. And in 1998, McGuinness helped ink the Good Friday power-sharing agreement. There were other remarkable historical moments, such as McGuinness shaking hands with the queen, whose cousin, Lord Mountbatten, had been blown up by the IRA in 1979. Their second handshake is captured here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QUEEN ELIZABETH II: Fine, thank you very much.

MCGUINNESS: Nice to see you.

ELIZABETH II: It's been grand to be back again here.

LANGFITT: Speaking this morning on Britain's Sky News, Alastair Campbell, who worked for Prime Minister Tony Blair during the peace negotiations, put that exchange with the queen in perspective.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: There's somebody who, in a previous life, she would have been very, very high up the list of people that the IRA saw as legitimate targets.

LANGFITT: As a political leader in Northern Ireland, McGuinness forged a friendship and shared power with Ian Paisley, a former enemy and later first minister of Northern Ireland. The two became known improbably as the Chuckle Brothers. Alastair Campbell recalled McGuinness fondly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMPBELL: I think you have to judge people in the round, particularly on a day like this when they - when they've died. And I think Martin McGuinness' role and his contribution to the reality of what Northern Ireland has become cannot be underestimated.

LANGFITT: This morning, McGuinness' fellow Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, posted this song in honor of his friend on Twitter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONG FOR IRELAND")

THE DUBLINERS: (Singing) And I sang a song for Ireland.

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONG FOR IRELAND")

THE DUBLINERS: (Singing) In old pubs where fiddlers love to play. Saw one touch the bow. He played a reel that seemed so grand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.