How should we remember Martin McGuinness?
It was a dead end in a Catholic slum of Londonderry but it was his road to Damascus.
Three years later, on Derry’s Bloody Sunday, when 13 unarmed civil rights protestors were massacred by soldiers, it was said he carried a sub-machine gun.
Yet when eventually he reached a crossroads, he chose the better path. And with his death yesterday at 66, Martin McGuinness was mourned not as Britain’s number one terrorist, but as one of its most persuasive diplomats.
His was one of the most remarkable political and personal journeys of our time, and when in 2012 he shook hands with the Queen, it had reached a conclusion no-one had foreseen - least of all when, as the IRA’s chief of staff in 1979, he had given the order to murder her cousin, Lord Mountbatten.
It had been the most intractable conflict in Britain’s recent history. Those three days of disorder outside his house, in which the British army had had to separate the police and his neighbours, set the template for the next three decades.
McGuinness had not been an activist before the Battle of the Bogside. But after it, he was the IRA’s most trusted lieutenant and its chief of staff, a ruthless proponent of the republican violence that caused more than half of the 3,600 killings in those years.
His former trade earned him the epithet Butcher of Bogside, a messianic street fighter who defended the spilling of as much blood as necessary in pursuit of his political Arcadia.
He was said to have had more influence than anyone else over the men of violence. He was in the inner circle when, in 1972, an IRA delegation flew to London to meet Willie Whitelaw, the first Northern Ireland secretary.
A year later, in an Irish Republic court he refused to recognise, he was jailed for six months when police caught him in a car containing 250lbs of explosives and 5,000 rounds of ammunition.
This side to him, the uncompromising idealist for whom violence was the only means to an end, no matter how deep the misery it caused, explains why the eulogies yesterday were not unqualified. To some, he would always, and only, be a murderer.
Lord Tebbit, the former Cabinet minister whose wife, Margaret, was paralysed when the IRA bombed their Brighton hotel during the Conservative Party conference in 1984, spoke for them all yesterday when he said he hoped McGuinness was “parked in a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of hell for the rest of eternity”.
Stephen Gault, whose father, Samuel, died in the IRA’s notorious Poppy Day bombing in Enniskillen in 1987, sounded a similar note. “If he had been repentant my thoughts might have been slightly different,” he said.
“But he took to his grave proud that he served in the IRA. There was no remorse or repentance from him even up to his death.”
Yet for all McGuinness’ obduracy, he understood better than anyone else on the front line the art of political compromise.
It was he who helped secure the IRA’s first cessation of violence in 1994, while in secret contact with the British. Dialogue, he acknowledged later, “offered the only way out of perpetual conflict”.
As Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, his transformation from terrorist to peacemaker was complete.
His partnership at the top of Stormont’s power-sharing administration with the Rev Ian Paisley, the fundamentalist unionist leader who had been his most implacable enemy, would have been unthinkable just a few years before, as republican bombs ripped apart cities on both sides of the Irish Sea.
The late Mr Paisley’s son maintained the spirit of conciliation yesterday, saying it was more important to reflect on McGuinness’ latter days than on his firebrand youth.
A man who had once struck fear into people’s hearts across Northern Ireland had become “the necessary man in government to deliver a stable and necessary peace”, he said.
“That’s a complex and remarkable journey.”
Sir John Major, whose premiership came at a critical time in the peace process, went further. “Martin McGuinness realised that, if one wishes to secure long-term peace, negotiation must always prevail over violence. In a mixed legacy, that stands to his credit. Let that be his epitaph.”