Is Martin McGuinness Really Fit To Lead Ireland?

With the Irish Presidential Election just a few weeks away, is the former Sinn Féin chief negotiator, a man forever surrounded in allegations of his murky past, really ready to lead Ireland?
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With the Irish Presidential Election just a few weeks away, is the former Sinn Féin chief negotiator, a man forever surrounded in allegations of his murky past, really ready to lead Ireland?

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When Martin McGuinness announced his candidacy for the Irish Presidential election on 16 September, while not altogether unexpected, the news was still received with alarm by many South of the Border.

On the one hand, you’ve got a presidential candidate who is a 24-carat game-changer. He has a gilt-edged international reputation as a peacemaker. He hobnobs in the White House and he’s shared power with Ian Paisley fer chrissake; together they even formed the unlikeliest political double act in Irish history, affectionately known as the Chuckle Brothers.

He’s been described by British Intelligence as officer material and he was flown to London for secret negotiations with the British Government when he was barely out of his teens. In the course of a long and dangerous career, he’s been jailed, on the run and kept under surveillance. He’s also been one of the architects of the current peace in Ireland, fragile as that might sometimes seem.  He’s a man described by the First Derry Presbyterian minister David Latimer as "one of the great leaders of modern times".

But then, behind the glowing lionisation, there is a murky looking glass world and how could it ever be otherwise?  As late as 2001, the Guardian was reporting that Sinn Féin's chief negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process had “been appointed chief of staff of the IRA” in late September of that year which seems to be rather at odds with Sinn Féin orthodoxy on McGuinness parting company with the IRA in or around 1974.

Peter Taylor, a British journalist with long experience in Northern Ireland, alleged in 2008 that McGuinness was the head of the IRA's Northern Command and had advance knowledge of the IRA's 1987 Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen, which left 11 civilians dead.

Allegations in particular about his part in the 1986 shooting of a Derry man called Frank Hegarty, accused of being an informer by the IRA and the 1990 murder of Patsy Gillespie, who was forced to drive a car-bomb to a British Army check-point where the device was detonated, killing him and five soldiers, persistently form the basis of much current enquiry in Ireland. In both cases it is alleged that, at the very least, McGuinness had forewarning of these events, at worst he had operational control.

These are tough questions and I daresay they will take some answering before the campaign gets much older. And I further suspect the truth is that once these are answered (satisfactorily or not), others will take their place and Martin McGuinness could well spend much of his election campaign revisiting the atrocity exhibition that is the Irish Dirty War.

What is however being forgotten in all this sturm und drang is the depth of outright disillusionment with standards in public life that is being felt throughout the country, beyond the confines of the Leinster House village. The Irish political and opinion-forming elites need to be asking why Martin McGuinness appears like such an attractive prospect as opposed to just falling over each other to carry out public attacks on the candidate and his character. Form an orderly queue at least, ladies and gents.

It’s still too soon; counsel the wise and cautious heads, for us to be casting again the long shadow of the gunman onto an uncertain future. And they might be right, but the truth is that there is a whole generation who’ve grown up in Ireland post-ceasefire. To many, if they search online for YouTube clips of McGuinness, they are more likely to see early radical gunslinger chic or late-period statesman McGuinness than grim, implicated in the shootings of trusting victims McGuinness.

Politically, economically and demographically, this is still a very young country; a place where The Good Friday Agreement is already just another historical footnote in Southern Ireland's ambivalent relationship with 'The Troubles'. The candidacy of Martin McGuinness perhaps asks that a younger electorate revisit the dark narrative of The North; hung up though the country might still be, on the razor-wired cusp of raw, living memory and brittle, recent history.

In their haste however to discount the Derry Butcher boy and his black and bloody Northern ways, it might be ventured that the southern political class is perhaps covering for its own failures rather more than it is voicing the fears of the plain people of Ireland. When McGuinness turned up recently at the National Ploughing Championships in Achy in his nice suit and clean wellingtons, he was no more an object of curiosity than any of the other Presidential candidates as they squelched around and glad-handled bewildered farmers for the cameras. If the plain people of Ireland were troubled by Martin McGuinness, they showed magnificent and stoic fortitude in hiding it so well.

The Irish political and opinion-forming elites need to be asking why Martin McGuinness appears like such an attractive prospect as opposed to just falling over each other to carry out public attacks on the candidate and his character.

It might amuse people to remember that when erstwhile bastions of the establishment Fianna Fáil first entered the Dáil in 1927, some of their deputies were still armed. That same parcel of rogues has now been humbled and Sinn Féin is looking to step up in the South and fill the vacuum before their old enemies regroup; they just want to be the new parcel of rogues on the block. That’s life, that’s politics.

Besides, it would also be politically naive to imagine that Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams could ever have delivered on their part of the Peace Process if they didn’t exert considerable strategic influence within the IRA's top echelons. It’s also clear that both men pursued this project at some considerable risk to themselves. How involved they were operationally in the IRA and when are questions that will probably follow both men for the remainder of their public lives and perhaps beyond.

A sort of 'constructive ambiguity' has surrounded the roles of Adams and McGuinness from the earliest days of the Peace Process.  In essence, that ambiguity created a space where Sinn Féin could be negotiated with as credible political players while everyone simultaneously tried to overlook and appeal to a very compelling reason for their credibility; namely the ability to deliver to ceasefire a well-equipped and shadowy private army. The politicians in Dublin, London, Washington and Belfast who cultivated this state of affairs only have themselves to blame if these same men have proved to be resilient political operators.

Deconstructing that 'ambiguity' is doubtless seen as an effective political tactic, an outflanking manoeuvre designed to keep the McGuinness campaign on the defensive. And when one looks back at the vitriol and dirty tricks that were employed against Senator Norris since his candidacy's inception and throughout its subsequent dramatic vicissitudes, taking McGuinness apart, outrage by outrage, is not so implausible. Here's what we thought about The Senator Norris Resignation back in August.

And that was the state of play as of 28 September, when riders and runners were finally firmed up for what was shaping up to be a seven-horse steeplechase. Making the final cut for the 2011 Irish Presidential Election were David Norris, Martin McGuinness, Michael D Higgins, Gay Mitchell, Dana Rosemary Scallon, Seán Gallagher, and Mary Davis. The country goes to the polls on 27 October.

The problem for the rest of the candidates is that while they were happy enough to scrap it out amongst themselves around the parochial waterhole, the arrival of Martin McGuinness was a bit like a big beast lumbering into the clearing. It’s hard not to be just a little bit tickled by the shocked and horrified Irish establishment’s response to the McGuinness candidacy. The discombobulation of it all...

The Irish Presidential Election had been ticking along very nicely and it was a handy story for the local media to manage. Plenty of piffling outrages and storms in teacups. A little bit of rinky-dink razzle-dazzle and sure why not?

Were national treasures Dame Gay Byrne and legendary GAA match-caller Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh going to throw their hats in the ring? Then there was all that ‘will she, won’t she?’ stuff from Camp Norris. Oh now, all kinds of everything, as another Derry candidate might say...

Mayo’s Mary Davis got her nomination through the County Council route, securing the nomination of four councils to get her name on the ticket. Marys from Mayo have some form in the race for Áras an Uachtaráin (That, my British Bredrin, is the big white house in Dublin’s Phoenix Park that used to be called Viceregal Lodge and is now the official residence of the Irish President).

But with all due respect, this Mary’s no Robinson and Mayo is more likely to win the Sam Maguire Cup than see Mary Davis into the Áras, especially if allegations of Fianna Fáil clientism start to stick.

Seán Gallagher, a shrewd customer from Cavan: him off the Irish version of Dragon’s Den is a candidate with a ready-made profile and a great line in that kind of off-the-shelf, corporate empowerment-speak that might have cost you hundreds of euro an hour to hear at executive conferences during the fat septic tiger years.

If nothing else, the McGuinness candidacy has raised some interesting questions about the role of the Irish Presidency as our nominal centenary approaches: questions of a constitutional as well as a cultural nature.

The candidates from the mainstream political parties are solid but hardly remarkable in their pedigree. Ruling coalition partners Fine Gael trundled Gay Mitchell out early and so far, his campaign has stubbornly refused to ignite. Some younger voters might manage to be indifferent to him if only they knew who he was.  If Mitchell is remembered for anything, it is when he was famously dubbed a ‘waffler’, the epithet being bestowed by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

Michael D Higgins seemed the logical Labour Party Candidate; witty, erudite, politically experienced and ever so Gaelically idiosyncratic. As Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Mr Higgins had scrapped the Irish media ban on broadcasting interviews with members of Sinn Féin. One wonders if he's ever regretted giving these gruff Northerners their voices.

But his despite his justifiable claims to political and cultural elder statesmanship, Michael D Higgins’ campaign has been hard hit by the re-emergence of the exuberant Senator David Norris.  In the wake of ‘that Letter’, that resignation speech and then his triumphant re-entry to the race, Michael D has at times ended up looking a little side-lined, such is the soap opera that this contest has become. That said, he’s in it for the long haul, still looking like a good goer and still the bookies favourite.

Fianna Fáil, beaten like a ginger stepchild in the recent general election, couldn’t even raise enough self-belief or leadership to support a party candidate for the Presidency. That was all the daylight Sinn Féin needed.

Enter McGuinness with a gallant promise to take only an industrial wage if elected. Doubtless he and his handlers foresaw some heavy weather once the balloon went up but even they must be worried at this stage by the shit-storm they’ve stirred up.

The visceral response from many quarters of the Southern establishment has manifested itself in sustained media attacks on the Sinn Féin candidate. Coverage of the election race so far on the national broadcaster RTÉ (Radió Teilifís Éireann) seems to have been characterised by even-handed impartiality for every candidate, other than Mr McGuinness. In spite of all this bad press, Martin McGuinness was still running third in the bookies' estimations at the close of nominations and he topped a listeners' poll conducted on a mystifyingly popular RTÉ radio phone-in show shortly after he announced his intentions.

At the heel of the hunt, McGuinness is unlikely to be elected President of Ireland so people can relax; the man who seems to have more military titles than the front-row of the viewing stand at the Changing of the Guard will probably not be adding Commander in Chief of the Irish Armed Forces to his apparently exhaustive list of IRA commissions. Stranger things have happened on our strange little island, I'll grant you that but at this stage; it's not really about whether McGuinness wins, it's probably more about how well he fails.

If nothing else, the McGuinness candidacy has raised some interesting questions about the role of the Irish Presidency as our nominal centenary approaches: questions of a constitutional as well as a cultural nature.

The McGuinness camp has been at pains to stress how faithful their candidate would be to the role of President as envisaged by the Irish Constitution. But to many people, even that sounds like a threat when it’s coming from Sinn Féin. Donegal TD Pearce Doherty suggested to RTÉ viewers last week that the power to refer bills to the Supreme Court was an area that a President might appraise. (The less said the better about Sinn Féin’s very evangelical conversion to the constitutional validity of a 1937 document forged in a hitherto heretical Free State...)

In the exercise of his or her powers, the President of Ireland is advised (but not bound) by a Council of State and the President has the right to make several appointments to this Council. One is tempted to wonder what kind of appointments would be made by a possible President McGuinness. Might he, for example, make a high-profile Unionist appointment to his ‘Privy’ Council? As President of Ireland, McGuinness would inevitably give a great fillip to calls for a truth and reconciliation process, whether indeed he wanted to or not; if such a project were to be pursued as a matter of national policy.

Another perhaps less edifying parenthesis to the Presidential race so far is the South’s reaction to this embarrassing reminder of its own not so far away gunman days. Implicit in some Southern distaste for McGuinness is the assumption that the governance of Northern Ireland is somehow less than legitimate, that the probity of the Irish people who voted for McGuinness in the North is somehow questionable or even dismissible.

But perhaps more than anything, this bid for the Presidency highlights the sheer breadth of Sinn Féin’s political ambitions in the southern part of Ireland. They will put out their A-team and the philosophy behind the movement seems constant; like a relentless Beckettian refrain: if it’s ‘too soon’ this time around, it soon won’t be.

But if you don’t like the absurdist approach, here are Paddy Powers’ most recent odds on the 2011 Áras Steeplechase

Michael D. Higgins: 4/6

David Norris: 7/2

Martin McGuinness: 9/2

Gay Mitchell: 8/1

Mary Davis: 9/1

Seán Gallagher: 40/1

Dana Rosemary Scallon: 50/1

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