The entry of reformed terrorist Martin McGuinness into the Irish Presidential race has certainly reinvigorated, what had become, a staid campaign but dangerously high levels of obfuscation risk returning the whole election to high farce.
First of all, it is my firm belief that McGuinness will not win this election – he may be polling well at the moment but he is something of a marmite candidate, you either love him or hate him, and will likely lose the race on transfers.
Secondly, does it matter if McGuinness, a former IRA commander with a rather hazy recollection of his days leading the illegal army, proves me wrong and becomes our ninth president?
Strangely, is is something that Leo Varadkar, with whom the only thing I have in common is a pulse, said which convinced me that it does. Speaking on the Week in Politics, Varadkar pointed out Sinn Fein itself wants to see a Truth Commission established in the North and said it would be untenable for the Irish president to have to attend and discuss the number of murders or bombings he had ordered during his criminal past.
The office of president is largely a ceremonial one which involves a lot of hand shaking and ribbon cutting. Imagine the awkward silences and tense standoffs that would be the inevitable aftermath of any testimony McGuinness gave at a Truth Commission? Imagine his first trip abroad to try to represent Ireland on a global stage after gruesome details about his terrorist past had made international headlines?
Furthermore, McGuinness himself has been less than forthcoming about his role, and the length of its duration, in the IRA.
David Norris has been put through the wringer because he wrote to the Israeli authorities seeking clemency for his former lover after he was convicted of statutory rape and, at the time of writing, has less than 24 hours to convince two county councils, or two Oireachtas members, to nominate him. While I hope that Norris manages to enter the fray, and go before the people, it is only right that his failings, as well as his successes, are considered before he becomes President. It would have been highly embarrassing, and upsetting for many people, if the letters had only come to light after Norris was ensconced in the Áras.
What then about McGuinness who has said that he wants to be judged on his record – but only the one he holds as a public representative and not the private role he held in the IRA, which he refuses to discuss in any depth.
If McGuinness really wants to be taken seriously as a candidate than publicly referring to those who ask awkward questions as West Brits isn’t the best way to start. I mean, imagine what he’s calling them in private?
Meanwhile, other members of Sinn Fein have tut tutted when their political opponents, rightly, draw attention to McGuinness’ selective bragging about his past accomplishments.
Pearse Doherty, in response to Varadkar’s comments about the Truth Commission, said that he was engaged in “negative” campaigning and said “the people” want to discuss the future and not the past.
Sorry, but negative campaigning involves smearing an opponent’s reputation with salacious rumours concerning sexual, criminal or financial impropriety that may, or may not, be true. Calmly pointing out that a future president McGuinness may be called before a Truth Commission to give evidence about bombing campaigns, torture and murder is simply stating some pretty unpleasant facts.
Then, of course, there are those who criticise McGuinness’ political opponents saying that if he’s good enough to be deputy first minister in the North then he’s good enough to be president in the south.
I don’t concur. I have absolutely no problem with McGuinness moving to the south and, like Gerry Adams, contesting a Dail seat. He’s more than welcome to seek out a consituency who want his representation. I do, however, have a problem with McGuinness decamping to the Aras, as a representative of the entire country, when we know very little about his role in the IRA – other than it was substantial and lasted a lot longer than he has claimed.
I don’t expect much from my president – an imperviousness to dull speeches, the ability to shake hands for hours, and superlative small-talking abilities – but electing someone who is known to have a criminal past, when we don’t know the extent of his crimes, is just madness.
If some letters prove to be enough to disbar an excellent candidate like Norris, who waged a long legal battle with the State in order to decriminalise homosexuality, then the election will certainly have descended into farce if a born-again terrorist doesn’t even have to break a sweat to get on the ticket.
Which is why I think the Irish people will sagely decide that McGuinness isn’t the right man for the Áras – a decision which Sinn Fein themselves will be more than happy with, considering the good performance that their candidate, a seasoned campaigner, will certainly put it.
This election, and McGuinness’ entry straight to the top of a number of opinion polls, have irrevocably changed the political landscape in Ireland. The very fact that McGuinness’ name is being mentioned as a credible candidate who is, frankly, making mincmeat out of Gay Mitchell, is sufficicent to see the party’s support increase a couple of percentage points.
The stage for Sinn Fein’s 90 degree turn from the fringe to the mainstream had already been set by its better-than-expected performance in the last general election and today, as the only party of opposition in the Dail (Fianna Fail is unable to oppose as the government is currently engaged in implementing its policies), its star is undoubtedly in the ascendancy.
With Fianna Fail unwisely sitting this election out, failing even to wring any tangential drop of goodwill out of it by facilitating Norris when he desperately needed its members’ nominations, the only way for the Sinn Fein party now is up.