Martin McGuinness, LGBT rights advocate and Sinn Féin leader, dies

Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s former deputy first minister, long-time advocate for LGBT rights and convicted terrorist, has died aged 66.

The Sinn Féin politician, who stepped down from his position in January, was suffering from a rare heart condition, it is understood.

The former IRA leader turned peacemaker when he played a huge role in putting together the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, ending the violence which he also played a key part in.

Following the peace agreement, he worked at the heart of the power-sharing government.

He became deputy first minister in 2007, governing alongside Democratic Unionist Party leaders Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster.

McGuinness resigned in January in protest at the DUP’s handling of an energy scandal, in a move that prompted a snap election.

The titan of Northern Irish politics had long urged his fellow politicians to take steps towards same-sex marriage, repeatedly calling for a referendum on the issue in recent years.

Last year he said his party would keep pursuing same-sex marriage as a priority.

He had publicly pursued equal rights for the LGBT community in Northern Ireland for at least a decade.

Prime Minister Theresa May told the BBC she could never “condone the path he took in the earlier part of his life”.

However, she added that “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.”

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said: “Throughout his life Martin showed great determination, dignity and humility and it was no different during his short illness.

“He was a passionate republican who worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation and for the reunification of his country. But above all he loved his family and the people of Derry and he was immensely proud of both.”

Northern Ireland’s former first minister Arlene Foster expressed her “sincere condolences” at his death. “Today’s news will come as a shock to many people,” she said.

“First and foremost, Martin McGuinness was a much-loved husband, father and grandfather. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife and the family circle at this very painful time of grief and loss.”

Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister who built the Good Friday Agreement with McGuinness, said: “I grew up watching and hearing about the Martin McGuinness who was a leading member of the IRA engaged in armed struggle.

“I came to know the Martin McGuinness who set aside that armed struggle in favour of making peace. There will be some who cannot forget the bitter legacy of the war.

“And for those who lost loved ones in it, that is completely understandable.

“But for those of us able finally to bring about the Northern Ireland peace agreement, we know we could never have done it without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future.”

James Brokenshire, Northern Ireland Secretary of State, said Mr McGuinness’ “personal journey and the clear influence he had on others in the republican movement were instrumental in shaping political institutions in Northern Ireland founded on exclusively peaceful and democratic means”.

Taoiseach (the Irish prime minister) Enda Kenny said his death represented a “significant loss, not only to politics in Northern Ireland, but to the wider political landscape on this island and beyond”.

However, Lord Tebbit, a survivor of the IRA’s Brighton bombing attack in 1984, condemned McGuinness as “a coward” and a “multi-murderer”.

Five people were killed and 34 – including Tebbit’s wife – were injured in the IRA attack, which was aimed at Margaret Thatcher.

Tebbit, who served in the Conservative cabinet for six years during the 80s, said on LBC Radio: “The world is a sweeter and cleaner place, isn’t it?

“He was a coward who knew that the IRA was defeated, that the IRA Council even, the army council had been penetrated by British intelligence and they were beaten.

“And he, coward as always, opted to try and get out of that by posing as a man of peace. He was a murderer, a multi-murderer.”

In 1972, when he was 21, he was second-in-command of the IRA during Bloody Sunday, when 14 civil rights protesters were killed in Derry by soldiers.

He was convicted by Ireland’s Special Criminal Court after being arrested near a car containing explosives and ammunition.

He served two prison sentences, and was also convicted of having an IRA membership.

McGuinness claimed he left the IRA in 1974 to move into politics, but security experts believe he was still a leader during some of the group’s most infamous attacks, such as the Brighton bombing.