London: Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander who served for nearly a decade as deputy first minister in Northern Ireland, said on Thursday he was quitting frontline politics to focus on recovering from a serious illness.
The Sinn Fein lawmaker resigned last week from the devolved government in the British province after a row with his party’s power-sharing partners, triggering a snap election.
McGuinness, 66, said at the time that his plainly visible but unconfirmed ill-health was not a factor.
On Thursday, however, he said he had decided he was “not in any physical state” to stand in the vote, scheduled for March 2.
In an interview with the Press Association news agency, he said tests had prompted a diagnosis of a “very serious illness which has taken a toll on me”.
“I have taken the decision that I will not be a candidate in the upcoming election,” he said. “I am very determined to overcome this condition but it is going to take time.”
Ten years ago in May, McGuinness made history by entering a government with his once bitter foe, Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The decision to share power was a key part of the peace process in Northern Ireland, which endured three decades of violence in which more than 3,500 people died.
McGuinness was a commander in the IRA paramilitary group that fought for the province to leave Britain and join the Republic of Ireland to the south.
After McGuinness announced his departure from frontline politics, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny described him as “a tireless and committed champion of the peace process”.
“While Martin and I may not always have seen eye-to-eye on every issue, I readily acknowledge the remarkable political journey that he has undertaken.
“I know that Martin remains firmly committed to delivering a peaceful and prosperous society for all of the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.
British Prime Minister Theresa May sent her “best wishes for his retirement”.
“We recognise his work over many years securing a number of significant political agreements,” she said in a statement.
“He played a key role in moving the Republican movement towards a position of using peaceful and democratic means.”
McGuinness’s resignation earlier this month forced the DUP first minister, Arlene Foster, to step down in a crisis that has sparked fears for the viability of the power-sharing institutions.
He said he had “no other alternative” after Foster had refused to step aside pending an investigation into a scandal over a botched renewable energy subsidy scheme.
Instigated by Foster in a previous job, it is likely to cost taxpayers millions of pounds.
“As someone who has worked night and day over the course of 10 years to keep the institutions intact, and of course many conversations with both the British and Irish government about the DUP, it was particularly disappointing,” McGuinness said.
He said he hoped in the future to be “an ambassador for peace, unity and reconciliation”.
“Reconciliation, I have always believed, is the next vital stage of the peace process,” he said.
“My record of reaching out, whether it be to Queen Elizabeth — and her record of reaching out to me on several occasions — my visits to (WWI battlegrounds) the Somme, to Flanders field, have not been reciprocated by the DUP and that is a particular disappointment to me.” — AFP