Martin McGuinness is to retire from politics in Northern Ireland and will not stand in the forthcoming election to the province’s assembly after acknowledging that illness has forced him to call time on his political career.

Mr McGuinness, who went from being the one-time second-in-command of the IRA in Derry to deputy first minister in the devolved administration in Northern Ireland, said he was no longer able to continue at the helm of Sinn Fein in the assembly and the executive.

His announcement will immediately spark a succession race in Sinn Fein just six weeks from the March 3 election, which he brought about when he resigned as deputy first minister last week.

“Unfortunately I am not physically able to continue in my current role and have therefore decided to make way for a new leader,” Mr McGuinness said in a statement on Thursday. “This election is the right time to move aside so I will not seek re-election to the assembly.”

Mr McGuinness, who is 66, did not disclose the nature of his illness, but his poor health has become increasingly obvious over recent weeks. The Irish Times reported last week that he was suffering from amyloidosis, a rare condition that attacks the vital organs.

He said he had intended to step down from politics next May, which would have marked the 10th anniversary of his appointment as deputy first minister in the Northern Ireland executive, working alongside his one-time arch-enemy, Rev Ian Paisley, as first minister.

Their period in office was marked by a remarkable reconciliation between the two men, who had come to represent the polar opposites of Northern Ireland’s political and sectarian divides – Paisley the bombastic and intolerant loyalist and Mr McGuinness as the unapologetic IRA republican. Their partnership was widely seen as the key to making a success of the devolved institutions that now run Northern Ireland.

In his statement, Mr McGuinness said those institutions were “now in deep crisis” as a result of the scandal over a botched green energy scheme that triggered his resignation and led to the breakdown of the working relationship between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party.

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