As has been expected the decision by Sinn Fein deputy leader and North’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness to run for election as President of Ireland has proved to be quite controversial.
Last Saturday Mr. McGuinness was officially unveiled by Sinn Fein as their candidate for the Presidential election and swiftly received the support of 3 additional Oireachtas members to add to their 17 to give Mr. McGuinness the 20 votes required to enter the race. The additional support came from Kerry Independent TD Michael Healy Rae, Luke Ming Flanagan with Finian McGrath and Tom Flemming also believed to have provided their support.
Mr. McGuinness is well known to have been a leading member of the provisional IRA in the past and has gone to prison on two occasions as a result of this membership. Unsurprisingly it is this period of his past and the many heinous events executed by the IRA during this time of his membership that sits uneasily with many people. Within the past week we have seen much public disapproval of Mr. McGuinness’ decision to enter the race, with former TV presenter Gay Byrne brandishing both McGuinness and Sinn Fein as “liars”, saying: “they don’t mind lying and they’ve rehearsed their lies and they’ve been trained to lie.”
Should Mr. McGuinness win the race for President then he would assume the titular position of Head of the country’s Defence Forces, an issue which has irked many including Justice Minister Alan Shatter who believes that somebody with Mr. McGuinness’ “exotic background” would be “somewhat inappropriate” for this position.
Another aspect which appears to be overlooked but should be considered if Mr. McGuinness becomes President is his relationship with an Garda Síochana. Na Gardaí are the security providers to the President of Ireland yet one would imagine there must surely be an element of the Gardaí with some negative feeling towards Sinn Fein and Mr.McGuinness. There have been many events which could cause tension between the two but an act which lead to much disdain toward Sinn Fein was the 1996 killing of Det. Garda Jerry McCabe by the IRA. One would not be surprised if some members of an Garda Síochana were unhappy at having to protect a man of his alleged background and standing within an organisation that caused so much distress, in the South aswell as the North.
Sinn Féin have come under further criticism in this country for their boycott of the State dinner President McAleese hosted in Dublin Castle for Queen Elizabeth II earlier this year. This was seen by many as an ideal opportunity to make further strides in the reconciliation of the two countries and acknowledge the progress that has been made for peace, yet Sinn Féin as a party were very public at the time in their refusal to attend. This has raised questions as to how Mr. McGuinness would act, as head of this State, should he be required to meet the Queen or any other members of the Royal Family.
Mr. McGuinness himself has stated that he would be willing to meet Queen Elizabeth should he become president. He has also acknowledged being a member of the Provisional IRA and has condemned the killing of Det. Garda Jerry McCabe.
McGuinness has said on his time in the IRA: “ I don’t divest myself of my responsibility during the time I was in the IRA, I have plenty of regrets”. Yet his account of his time in the IRA is in stark contrast to that which has been reported. Former head of the RUC Special Branch Chief Superintendent Brian Fitzsimons and former RUC Chief Constable Hugh Annesley have both stated that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were key figures in the provisional IRA and that Sinn Féin and the provisional IRA were inextricably linked.
McGuinness has employed various tactics in response to questioning on this issue. To his credit he has always acknowledged he was a member of the IRA, however on certain occasions he has refused to answer the extent of his involvement. More recently as the Presidential race has progressed he has adopted a more open stance, stating that he had fought and fired a gun but that he had never killed anybody, either directly or indirectly.
However it is Mr. McGuinness’s record as a peacemaker that his campaign is based on. Martin McGuinness has been a key figure in establishing peace in the North. One of the most powerful images of the newly established peaceful North was of Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley side by side laughing and joking like old friends. Remember these were men considered to be sworn enemies. Men so opposed and divided in their beliefs that the thoughts of them being in each others company for long enough to work together seemed far-fetched. Yet there they were. Huge credit must go to McGuinness for his part in working so successfully with those from all sides.
Yes, his past is one of alleged violence, yet his present seems firmly one of peace. Mr. McGuinness has also highlighted his credentials for the ambassadorial role that comes with being President, on last Sunday’s “This Week” on RTE Radio 1, he said :
“ I’ve been in the Oval Office with three Presidents, I’ve been at the invitation of Nelson Mandela to South Africa”.
Let’s not forget either that Nelson Mandela was also considered a terrorist. Which brings us to the other argument in favour of Martin McGuinness as President. Wasn’t one of Ireland’s best loved political figures, former Taoiseach and President, Eamon DeValera a terrorist? He was of course a member of the original Irish Republican Army and fought in the 1916 rising. Is there such a huge distinction between the bloody wars fought by the IRA of then and now?
For those who believe Senator Norris as President would give the image of a progressive Ireland, could it be argued that Martin McGuinness as President would give an even stronger image of progression? Could it provide an even more powerful symbol of how far this country has come from its troubled past? Or would it give the wrong image, the President of this country with such a controversial past – some acknowledged but even more alleged?