Northern Ireland's ex-deputy first minister and former IRA commander died after a prolonged illness.

Martin McGuinness spent a decade as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, but retired from politics in January because of illness.
Martin McGuinness spent a decade as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, but retired from politics in January because of illness. (TRT World and Agencies)

Martin McGuinness, the former Irish Republican Army commander who laid down his arms and turned peacemaker to help end Northern Ireland's 30-year conflict, died on Tuesday at age 66.

McGuinness spent a decade as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. He stepped down in January 2017, a number of months before a planned retirement, because of an undisclosed illness.

He spent his last two weeks in a hospital trying to overcome severe side effects from his treatment.

When he resigned, the former IRA commander said he was not physically able to continue in his role ahead of recent elections.

At the time, McGuinness told supporters 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,'' McGuinness told Irish national broadcaster RTE.

He is survived by his wife Bernadette and four children.

TRT World's Matt Symington discusses McGuinness's legacy.

IRA Commander

Born on May 23, 1950, he grew up as a young street fighter in Londonderry and later turned politician and statesman.

McGuinness saw his mission as defending the rights of the Catholic minority against the pro-British Protestants who for decades dominated Northern Ireland.

He joined the IRA in 1970 as the guerrilla group began its 30-year campaign against British rule that Catholics found increasingly intolerable.

He swiftly rose to become a senior commander.

McGuinness later admitted he was second-in-command of the IRA in Londonderry on ''Bloody Sunday,'' the day in 1972 when British troops in the city killed 14 unarmed marchers, ushering in the most intense phase of the Troubles.

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 spent years on the run and was banned from entering Britain in 1982 under the prevention of terrorism act, during the IRA's bombing campaign there.

TRT World's Jon Brain reports on the crucial role McGuinness played.

Uniting Ireland

During the 1980s McGuinness emerged alongside Gerry Adams as a key architect in the electoral rise of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political ally. McGuinness advocated a strategy of combining the use of the ballot box with that of the Armalite rifle.

First elected as a member of the Northern Ireland assembly in 1982, McGuinness played a crucial role in keeping the more militant wing of the IRA on board as elements of the leadership secretly probed the possibility of a negotiated settlement.

Following the IRA's second ceasefire in 1997, McGuinness became Sinn Fein's chief negotiator in peace talks that led to the landmark 1998 Good Friday peace accord.

Nine years later, the rise of Sinn Fein to Northern Ireland's largest Irish nationalist party allowed McGuinness to become deputy first minister in the power sharing government with bitter enemy Ian Paisley, the firebrand Protestant preacher who many Catholics see as a key player in the genesis of the conflict.

McGuinness surprised many by forming a close working relationship with Paisley. Media dubbed the pair ''the Chuckle Brothers."

In 2012 he shook hands with the Queen at a charity event in Belfast.

Such gestures alienated many former comrades who call him a traitor for helping to run the province while Britain's Union Jack flag is still flying over it.

McGuinness countered it was as stepping stone to their goal of a united Ireland.

Over the past decade, Sinn Fein has focused much of its resources on the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, where it has grown from five to 23 seats of the 166-seat parliament in a decade.

McGuinness leaves Northern Ireland at peace and in the hands of a new generation with Sinn Fein a major political force across the island, and his dream of a united Ireland inching closer.

Northern Ireland expert at London Metropolitan University, Jonathan Moore, told TRT World that Northern Ireland is a better place because of McGuinness.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies