The appointment of a former IRA officer as education minister grabbed headlines last week. Will he make the grade?
"I took particular interest in McGuinness's house as I intended shooting him through the bathroom window," the loyalist assassin Michael Stone told RUC detectives after his arrest. "I decided not to shoot him at the school because of the children.

"It was decided to give him a head shot at a newsagent's shop in Bishop Street as this was the most convenient place to do it as he went to the newsagent every morning," the police interview notes continue.

"I arrived at the scene at about 8.35am and parked about 20 feet from the shop. I had a .38 revolver in my pocket and an Armalite rifle across the back seat covered by a blanket. I sat there until 9.15am. McGuinness failed to turn up. I went back to Belfast."

This near-miss meant that Martin McGuinness was still around last week to become a government minister. He has had other brushes with death in his 49 eventful years, remarking once that he had been "fired at by the British Army on countless occasions".

The 1987 attempt to kill him was the stuff of paramilitary life back in those days, as hundreds of republicans and loyalists daily went about the business of trying to kill each other and members of the security forces.

The memory of those times, with their apparently endless drip of death, today produces an involuntary shudder, together with a surge of gratitude that they look to be gone for ever. Northern Ireland has come a long, long way.

Michael Stone did kill six other men and wound up behind bars. And McGuinness, the hated republican icon all the loyalists wanted dead, is now in charge of the future of Northern Ireland's schoolchildren. This is a man who left school at 15, went from being a teenage IRA activist to republican leader and now, amazingly, heads a government department.

Perhaps, though, it is only others who are amazed at the trajectory of his life, for the signs are that republican leaders have for years known the direction in which they were headed. The key to it all is that by the early 1990s they had collectively concluded that it was no longer true that power came only from the barrel of a gun.

Their course has been a long, slow, difficult path away from bombs and bullets and into government, and McGuinness, as the conscience of the republican movement, has played a vital part in it. A republican source once said: "Gerry is articulate, that's his strength. Martin has the respect and confidence of the volunteers. He's seen as their man. They trust him."

He brought to his role ruthlessness, controlled aggression, intelligence and an extraordinary degree of single-mindedness. The hope is that as education minister he will be able to impart his determination without passing on his combativeness.

As a schoolboy he was not at all a troublemaker, according to his old teachers in his home city of Londonderry. They describe him variously as well-behaved, extremely mannerly and as one of the quieter boys. Former teacher Jack Hanna recalled: "He was a quiet, shy sort of boy who didn't seek the limelight at any time. Nevertheless he was bright, intelligent."

Within a few years of leaving school, however, he was one of the leaders of Derry's republican rebels. He was just 19 when the Troubles exploded, saying of that time: "Everybody in Derry knows what I've been in the past - everybody in Ireland knows. I'm not ashamed of it. Everybody knows I was always involved in opposition to British rule in Ireland and the British occupation forces."

The fact is that it is impossible to find anyone in Ireland who believes he was not in the IRA. In any case, the BBC reporter Peter Taylor's research appears to have got him bang to rights: grainy black and white film from the early 1970s shows the young McGuinness being interviewed as officer commanding the IRA in Derry.

Then there's the yellowing Irish Times clipping from 1973 which has him telling the Dublin court that sent him down for six months on an IRA membership charge: "For over two years I was an officer in the Derry Brigade of the IRA. I am a member of the IRA and very, very proud of it."

His last employment was working in the bacon department of Doherty's butchers, preparing pre-packed meats. His last day at work, he says, was "8 August 1971, the day before internment". At that point he appears to have gone on the run to become a full-time streetfighter.

By 1972 he and Gerry Adams were among the republican delegation secretly airlifted by the RAF for talks with ministers in London. "It's like a lifetime away," he said years later. "We were only children, really." On that occasion McGuinness's demand was for British withdrawal rather than a post in a Northern Ireland government.

Over the years he has occasionally used the words "child" and "children", generally as forms of criticism. At one of the numerous IRA funerals he has attended, I heard him needling a policeman: "You're standing there like a big child," he remarked to him. "You're as bigoted and sectarian as ever youse were." He has also spoken of "the spoilt children of Unionism rooted firmly in the past".

He has been in the thick of things right through the Troubles. In the late 1980s a senior RUC Special Branch officer said privately that three figures essentially dominated the entire republican movement: McGuinness, Adams and Pat Doherty. The three did not necessarily always occupy the top positions, he explained, but their influence was such that they did not need to.

McGuinness and Adams have one of the most trusting relationships in Irish politics, having together weathered the trauma of the 1981 hunger strikes. They then took the opportunity offered by the electoral support stemming from that upheaval to build up Sinn Fein into the formidable political force of today.

This growth of Sinn Fein was an entirely unforeseen spin-off of the hunger strikes, but Adams, McGuinness and the others were quick to seize the moment. For years afterwards the policy of using the Armalite and ballot- box together held sway, but gradually the idea evolved that Sinn Fein might one day not just complement the IRA but eventually come to replace it.

McGuinness served over the years as republican chief negotiator, taking part first in the secret talks with the Conservative Government and later the public contacts which led on to the IRA ceasefires. Along the way he won the Westminster seat of Mid-Ulster, and most recently was to the fore in the critical talks between Sinn Fein and David Trimble.

In last month's talks he was, in fact, more successful than Adams in striking up a rapport with Trimble. Many who have met him say that up close he is impressive.

One person who has dealt with him said privately: "He is very blunt, very direct, no frills. He has this quality that if he looks in your eyes and tells you something, you believe it, you just do. You mightn't like it, but you do believe it."

This was the week when the Sinn Fein tail began to wag the IRA dog. The new minister was clearly genuinely chuffed as his officials showed him into his spacious new office, complete with red leather executive chair, and is clearly looking forward to sharing power with Unionists. But nobody thinks he is going to be seduced by the trappings of power.

He has moved a long way over the years, but republicans regard him as one of their sea-green incorruptibles, spare and ascetic, uninterested in money. His ministerial salary will go to the party. His entry to Ulster's Cabinet last week was the logical outcome of the historic long march by the republican movement. The IRA has yet to decommission weapons but its guns are silent. What's more, it is inconceivable that McGuinness could remain in government if the IRA goes back to violence: one bomb and that ministerial chair will turn into an ejector seat.

The crucial point here is his truly dramatic role reversal. In the early days of the peace process his job was to provide reassurance to the republican hard men who worried that Gerry Adams, with his evident flexibility, might get too soft.

But as the years went by the concept of peace gradually permeated the republican community, so that now practically everyone in it accepts that the war is over.

Republicans are now in the business of switching from the IRA, that appallingly destructive force which claimed so many lives, to Sinn Fein, whose political strength is providing a vital alternative source of empowerment.

And Martin McGuinness, once the embodiment of the IRA, last week became the personification of politics. His new task is to show the rest of the world that republicans are serious about peace and about politics. The one-time guarantor of militancy has become a guarantor of the peace.

If it all works out and the peace takes root, Michael Stone may one day be secretly glad that Martin McGuinness did not walk into his ambush in Derry in 1987, and did not have his life ended by that .38 revolver.