23/03/2017 15:48 GMT | Updated 23/03/2017 16:34 GMT

Thousands Line Streets As Northern Ireland Buries Martin McGuinness

McGuinness 'had the wisdom and courage to pursue peace and reconciliation' — Barack Obama

REUTERS/Phil Noble
Sinn Feinn President Gerry Adams, centre, walks next to the coffin of Martin McGuinness during his funeral in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, March 23, 2017.

Thousands lined the streets of Martin McGuinness' home town of Londonderry on Thursday to join international dignitaries for the funeral of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander who became a cornerstone of Northern Ireland's peace.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton was among the key figures from the peace process who traveled to pay their respects after the senior Sinn Fein party figure's death on Tuesday at the age of 66 from a rare heart condition.

McGuinness remains a figure of hate for many pro-British Protestants in Northern Ireland for his senior role in the IRA, which killed over 1,600 in three decades of violence aimed at breaking Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and uniting it with the Irish Republic.

But he is a hero for others for defending his community from what was seen as a hostile British state and for his role as one of the lead negotiators in the 1998 peace deal that largely ended the violence.

"I'm here to see history," said Antoinette McGuinness, 66, from Leitrim in the Irish republic. She said there were bus loads of mourners traveling from south of the border.

"The Catholics here had nothing. They were downtrodden for too long. He brought it right round from beginning to end. It's a shame he won't be here to see the result."

McGuinness' tricolor-draped coffin left his house in the city's Catholic Bogside neighborhood, close to the spot where British soldiers opened fire at a crowd of Catholic protesters on "Bloody Sunday" in 1972, killing 13.

It was carried part of the way by Sinn Fein members including Gerry Adams and past murals commemorating the Bloody Sunday victims and jailed IRA members who died on hunger strike a decade later, major turning points in the conflict.

McGuinness was later instrumental in convincing a reluctant IRA to lay down their weapons and agree to a peace deal that created a power-sharing government and gave the Republic of Ireland a say in Northern Ireland affairs.

"He changed the fabric of Northern Ireland for good. People are in a better place because of him," said Nancy O'Neill, in her 70s, who traveled with her family from the neighbouring county of Tyrone.

His last act before leaving politics was to withdraw from government in January, citing the "deep-seated arrogance" of unionist leader Arlene Foster. Foster, whose father narrowly escaped alive from an IRA shooting, was due to join the service and spoke warmly of McGuinness in parliament on Wednesday.

Ireland's president and prime minister were also to attend and the flag at the Irish parliament was flown at half mast.

In a message of condolence, former U.S. President Barack Obama said late on Wednesday that McGuinness "had the wisdom and courage to pursue peace and reconciliation" and that his leadership was instrumental in turning the page on the past.