24 October 2011
Martin McGuinness is a convicted terrorist yet he could be elected Ireland's new president
The Republic of Ireland elects its president this week, but the choice of candidates is alarmingly poor.
Campaign trail: Martin McGuinness aims to be elected the head of state of the Republic of Ireland,
where, as a non-resident, he does not even have the vote Photo: REUTERS
In September, Gay Byrne, Ireland’s most famous broadcaster, was asked what it was like to interview Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. “You get nowhere with them,” he said, “because they lie. They lie all the time.”
Byrne’s broadside was prompted by the news that McGuinness was taking a leave of absence from his job as Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister to try to become the head of state of the Republic of Ireland a country where, as a non-resident, he does not even have the vote. And since announcing his candidacy, McGuinness has lied frequently and brazenly. Despite having allegedly controlled the Provisional IRA since 1970 along with Adams he insists that he left it in 1974 after serving time for transporting weaponry. An exasperated interviewer ambushed him with eight serious books that described his role at the IRA’s head and heart: all these writers had been “misinformed”, said McGuinness. In another presidential debate he denounced as “disgraceful” the presenter’s query as to how he could reconcile his Catholicism with “being involved in the murder of so many people”.
On both occasions, McGuinness was indeed genuinely shocked and outraged. For since the security forces defeated the Provisionals and drove them down the path to negotiations, his assumed mantle of peacemaker has caused most journalists to treat him deferentially, lest they be accused as his few critics were of being “anti-peace”. He expected the same soft ride on the presidential trail, but even McGuinness’s comparisons of himself with Nelson Mandela could not save him from awkward questions.
Most moving was the intervention of the bereaved, starting with the son of a private from the Irish Army, murdered in 1983 while trying to rescue a hostage from the IRA. Challenged on TV to name the killers, McGuinness fell back on the usual denials. Since then, other relatives of IRA victims have demanded answers, and McGuinness has had no convincing defence.
Even the young, with neither memory nor knowledge of the Troubles, grasp that a vote for McGuinness in Thursday’s election will be a retrospective legitimisation of the IRA’s ruthless terrorist campaign, not to mention a test of morality for the Irish Republic. It may also occur to them that President McGuinness could be challenged on overseas visits by bereaved relatives of victims of IRA murders. An invitation to a reciprocal state visit is also unlikely to come from the Queen: it is hard to imagine her Tory-led Government would ask her to entertain a man accused of being complicit in the murder of Lord Mountbatten in 1979, the butchering of delegates at the party conference in 1984 and the mortar attack on Downing Street in 1991.
McGuiness’s candidacy is, say the sharper observers, part of a long-term plan. As long as he gets a bigger vote than Sinn Fein usually do, it’s good for the party’s profile. More important, the examination of the IRA’s bloody past has been so thorough that such accusations will seem old hat on Sinn Fein’s next electoral outing, especially if a different candidate is used. As one commentator indelicately put it, “Martin is taking a bullet for the boys”.
Yet surveying the state of the presidential field, a convicted terrorist looks almost attractive to some. Dana, the pop singer and Catholic evangelical, has been sunk by the embarrassment of a squalid family dispute. Mary Davis, the managing director of Special Olympics Europe/Eurasia, was destroyed by her obviously airbrushed posters and the nickname “Quango Queen”. Gay Mitchell, the candidate of Fine Gael, Ireland’s most popular political party, is so charisma-free that even party members are looking elsewhere. David Norris, a gay activist and Joycean scholar, was tipped to win but has conducted a campaign of matchless incompetence, compounded by rumours that he was unsound on underage gay sex.
At the moment, McGuinness is tipped to come in third. In second is Labour’s Michael D Higgins, a self-regarding poet who has buried his extreme Left-wing views. But the 70-year-old’s fragility and resemblance to a leprechaun are turning off the punters. Which is why, by default, independent candidate Sean Gallagher known to the public from the Irish equivalent of The Apprentice has acquired a commanding poll lead. Gallagher is a long-serving member of Fianna Fail the party that is blamed for wrecking the economy, and was all but destroyed in the last election as well as a property developer, a class now loathed almost as much as bankers. Yet at 49, his age and optimistic aura seem to be triumphing.
The electorate is volatile, there are two days to go and nothing is certain except that all the candidates have been damaged during the campaign, and the presidency itself tarnished. It’s so bad that there are those in Ireland today who secretly envy the British their monarchy.
Ruth Dudley Edwards