( AP ) - Martin Meehan, a one-time Irish Republican Army commander who spurred IRA members toward compromise, died Saturday of an apparent heart attack in his Belfast home, the Sinn Fein party said. He was 62.
Meehan spent 18 years in prison for a wide range of offenses, but ended his days as a firm advocate for peace and compromise in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams - who, like Meehan, joined the IRA in 1966 and spent time in prison with him in the 1970s - praised Meehan as "a dedicated IRA volunteer, political activist and elected representative."
Meehan was among the first IRA members arrested in August 1969, the month Britain deployed its army as would-be peacekeepers amid Protestant-Catholic rioting.
As the IRA commander in Ardoyne, a tough Catholic enclave in north Belfast, he directed deadly sniper attacks against British foot patrols.
In typically candid interviews, Meehan talked animatedly about organizing ambushes in the early 1970s.
"In those days we actually believed we were just one big heave away from beating the Brits militarily," he told The Associated Press in a January 2007 interview, when IRA veterans like himself voted overwhelmingly at a Sinn Fein conference to begin supporting Northern Ireland's police force.
"We were as determined as we were foolish on that score," he said. "With hindsight you can see all we ever stood to achieve was an honorable draw."
He was caught and jailed but escaped from a Belfast prison in December 1971 - smearing his skin with butter to insulate himself from the cold and hiding in a sewer tunnel for hours - and fled across the border to the Republic of Ireland. But Irish police arrested him a month later.
He was detained without trial from August 1972 to December 1975, when Britain ended its practice of treating IRA inmates as prisoners of war and began processing their cases in criminal courts.
Meehan was convicted in 1980 of leading the torture of a 17-year-old Belfast boy suspected of being an informer. Meehan, insisting he was not involved, pursued a 66-day hunger strike that ended only with intervention from Catholic Church leaders.
Soon after his 1985 parole, he was put behind bars again for kidnapping, torturing and preparing to execute a British soldier.
Paroled again in 1994, Meehan became a prominent activist for the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party.
When the central goal of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord - a Catholic-Protestant administration that would govern Northern Ireland - repeatedly broke down because of the IRA's refusal to disarm, Meehan proved surprisingly pragmatic on the point, suggesting that the IRA would need to renounce violence fully.
His support for laying down arms helped persuade younger IRA members to do the same.
"The war, in my opinion, has been over for a long time," Meehan told the AP in 2002, shortly after power-sharing collapsed.
Meehan was a Sinn Fein candidate in several elections, narrowly failing to win a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2003.
To the end, Meehan defended his support for the peace process in no uncertain terms. Earlier this year, when an IRA dissident accused him of being a sellout, Meehan decked the guy.
Meehan is survived by his second wife, Briege, and several children from both marriages. Sinn Fein said funeral services were still being arranged.