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Former terrorist pres a hard sell for Irish voters


Martin McGuinessAs an example of leopards changing spots or terrorists turning into statesmen, Irish Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinnes is up there with Kenyatta, Mandela and the young Mugabe.

He was once chief-of-staff of the IRA; in that role he was known as a faithful churchgoer with little tolerance for drinking or womanising but with a coldness that was not for turning when discussions involving death or mayhem were decided.

Almost 40 years ago, at the age of 22, he was in direct but deniable peace talks with the British government. A generation and too many deaths later, he was still talking behind closed doors, with Trimble and Paisley, Ahern and Blair, leading to the world's best example of a situation where former mortal enemies can work together, support each other, and even be at ease with each other.

That latter situation led to the nickname The Chuckle Brothers for the double act of Paisley-McGuinness, and is part of the reason why he is now on a hit list by dissident members of an organisation he once commanded.

At the weekend, McGuinness entered the race for the Irish presidency. It is a ceremonial role, quite similar to the Governor-General in Australia, currently filled with exemplary distinction by a woman from Belfast. That she comes from what purists might argue is a different jurisdiction means that no one will object to a candidate born in Derry, Northern Ireland's second city.

Sinn Féin is not popular in Ireland, partly due to their long association, common cause and in many cases common membership with the IRA. More significant however is the fact that their policies are left wing and ultra nationalist — the best comparison in this country would be to imagine some combination of the Greens and Australia First. Sinn Féin, after all, translates as We Ourselves.

One of the reasons why the entry of McGuinness into the presidential race is so significant is that the field is desolately dull. Fianna Fail, the former government, has decided not to enter a candidate, in the well justified belief that the electorate would take their anger out on them in a humiliating way.

In desperation they tried to induce Gay Byrne, a popular radio and television personality, to run, but changed their minds when the media pointed to some of his views that might go well on morning radio but would not bear up to the pressures of countrywide canvassing.

The nominee of Fine Gael, the government party, is from Dublin and carries the suspicion of ordinary people, well justified by recent experience, that a politician from the capital is some kind of pinstripe crook. The Labour Party has an attractive candidate in Michael D. Higgins, a former left wing politician, an academic and a poet who unfortunately tends to talk in the language of modern poetry.

There are other candidates who do not carry either the burden or the imprimatur of a political party. The early favourite was David Norris, an independent senator who represented Trinity College. A world authority on James Joyce and a well known gay activist, he once took the Irish government to the European court — and won — for their treatment of homosexuals.

He withdrew from the race in July when it was revealed that he had made representations to the President of Israel on behalf of a former lover who was to be sentenced for statutory rape. Word is that he is now is seeking to re-enter the race.

Which brings us to McGuinness. His role in the peace process and as Deputy First Minister in the current prosperity of Northern Ireland ought to be sufficiently powerful to counteract youthful actions that even some in the South regarded as justified in the circumstances of the time.

As in France, the Irish president is elected for a seven-year term. This is significant because the next incumbent will officiate at the centenary celebrations of the 1916 rising; that this person would be a member of Sinn Féin, as the early presidents were, would be highly symbolic.

So much so that people in the Republic might think twice about electing as commander-in-chief of the Irish army a man who was once in a similar position in the Provisional IRA. 

Frank O'SheaFrank O'Shea is a Canberra writer. 

Topic tags: Frank O'Shea, Martin McGuinness, IRA, Sinn Féin, Irish presidential election



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Existing comments

Now Frank, can you do us a similar clear and concise summary of our own political luminaries? This is such good reading.

patrick | 20 September 2011  

Frank O'Shea's analysis that "Sinn Fein is not popular in Ireland" is not borne out by the results of the Irish election earlier this year. The party increased its parliamentary representation by 200 percent and now holds 14 seats in the Dail with 10 percent of the national vote.

To further marginalise the party by comparing it with Australia First and the Greens party in an Australian context is also wide of the mark. Neither of those parties have ever had more than a solitary member in the lower house. Through the move by McGuinness to run for the presidency of the Republic and the transition of Gerry Adams into the Dail earlier this year, Sinn Fein are showing they are an ambitious party with an agenda for national government across the multiple jurisdictions of the country.

They would be a breath of fresh air in government in the Republic and certainly could only improve the dire economic and social malaise that the current, and immediate past governments, have visited upon the nation.

Having a member of Sinn Fein as the President of Ireland during the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Rising in 2016 would be something that I believe would bring a wry smile to the spirits of James Connolly, Padraig Pearse and other Irish martyrs.

Tom Cranitch | 20 September 2011  

Interesting argument but somewhat flawed. Sinn Fein has no equal in Australian politics. Australia does not have the same history of struggle to have spawned a comparable party. To compare them to the Greens is false, and to compare them to Australia First is way off the mark too. Yes, they are left wing, but they have more in common with the Socialists and the supposed ideals of the ALP than the parties the Author offers.

To call them unpopular in Ireland is also wide of the mark. While they may be unpopular with the urban middle-classes, Sinn Fein has a huge latent support base in the republic, particularly among the working classes who sometimes don't bother to vote out of apathy. The idea of having a Shinner as President for 2016 just might galvanise them into action. There are also a lot of educated middle-class people who voted for Mary Mac out of a spirit of reconciliation who might go further and vote Marty into the Aras for the same reasons.

Anyway, it wouldn't be the first time Ireland had a 'terrrorist' as President, would it? And I don't mean the economic terrorists of the last government either.

Joe | 20 September 2011  

There is nothing "desolately dull" about Senator David Norris. He was the front runner and may still re-enter and win, to believe the polls and anecdotal evidence. The attack on the Senator by small-minded and jealous enemies is a disgrace, with the shades of Wilde and Parnell looking on knowingly. The Senator was the only left-wing nomination, now we see the most unlikely entrance imaginable with the appearance of McGuinness. The public humiliation of Senator Norris for the most tenuous of reasons (for those who have read more than is presented in this column) is surely one of the most appalling displays of backwardness in recent Irish history. The election of Norris would be a triumph for forward-thinking Ireland, but how much of Ireland at present can be described as forward-thinking?

PHILIP HARVEY | 20 September 2011  

'a woman from Belfast". For those who don't know, her name is Mary McAleese, and she has been the Irish President since 1997 ! Joe said "Anyway, it wouldn't be the first time Ireland had a 'terrrorist' as President, would it? And I don't mean the economic terrorists of the last government either." True.

Phil | 20 September 2011  

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