Irish presidential race: A tale of the unexpected

Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness has transformed himself from an IRA commander into a political big beast

Oscar Wilde wrote in his play An Ideal Husband that "to expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect".

Clearly that's the kind of intellect required to keep track of Sinn Fein.

Last weekend, Martin McGuinness told BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics that he didn't know where the bookmakers had got his name from in relation to the Irish presidency.

But crucially he didn't rule himself out, insisting he was a party loyalist.

Bold tactics

Fast forward seven days and he is standing outside a Sinn Fein executive meeting in Dublin, proclaiming his intention to become a "People's President" and leaning so strongly on his track record of working with unionists that you might almost think Ian Paisley is his election agent.

No-one should be surprised. Mr McGuinness's switch from Foyle to Mid-Ulster was a similarly bold tactic. Then the party transported Mitchel McLaughlin to South Antrim and Gerry Adams to Louth.

Mr McGuinness says the decision has been difficult for his family, but Sinn Fein retain enough of their old discipline and central command that their representatives fall into line with the grand plan.

It's hard to imagine other parties being able to move their people around like pieces on a chessboard in such a dramatic fashion.

The move is not without its risks. Mr McGuinness's status has been enhanced by his high profile role in sharing power and working to export lessons in peacemaking to other trouble spots around the world.

Not all will agree with the Reverend David Latimer's description of him as "one of the great leaders of modern times", but there's no doubt that he has transformed himself from an IRA commander into a political "big beast".

If he is beaten into second or third place could he lose that statesman sheen?


Against that Sinn Fein is already reaping the rewards in enhanced media attention and the obvious discomfort of its southern opponents.

Fianna Fail now faces a dilemma in whether or not to allow its TDs to back David Norris.

Senator Norris might be able to attract votes which would otherwise go to Martin McGuinness - but the controversy which led to his withdrawal from the race does not endear him to many of Fianna Fail's more conservative Catholic grassroots supporters.

Back at Stormont the Education Minister John O'Dowd steps temporarily into the Deputy First Minister's shoes. Will this mean that the wheels of the devolved government grind even more slowly than before?

Mr McGuinness said Peter Robinson reacted "philosophically" when told the news 24 hours prior to its announcement.

Whatever else this is a deliberate statement by Sinn Fein that they continue to regard Stormont as a "transitional" compromise and their eyes remain on the 32-county picture.

As the campaign wears on, Mr McGuinness will no doubt face plenty of questions about his IRA past, including what he knew about the proxy bomb killing of cook Patsy Gillespie or the murder of informer Frank Hegarty.

He is likely to handle these with as cool a manner as he has done previously. The question will be whether the whiff of cordite alienates or engages the Irish electorate.

If the Mid Ulster MP loses, but with an enhanced vote,

Sinn Fein will portray the campaign as a useful plank in its all Ireland project.

If he wins, then all bets are off. Certainly, as Mr McGuinness put it himself, the Irish presidential election has got a lot more interesting.

Mark Devenport Article written by Mark Devenport Mark Devenport Political editor, Northern Ireland

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  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    This is exactly what the great sinn fein team want ,,,everyone talking about martin,,,,,so thanks everyone for helping out.....I see some polls are now putting martin in front but its a long way to go so keep up the good work folks. Even martin doesn,t win his and the excellent profile of sinn fein and the republican movement will gain dividends.

    Eyes open onward to victory

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    askurda - I fear that if you are correct Martin has thrown away his career for the presidency elections are not well placed time wise and people have a short memory. Too much water will have flown under the bridge by the next elections and Martin will be long forgotten. Especially when you see how little impact Gerry has has in the Dail. What a waste.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The electorate in the Republic of Ireland are not that gullible and will ultimately reject McGuinness as a viable candidate. All candidates will be required to disclose their past history, which of course McGuinness will be unable to comply with. McGuinness is seen as an outsider from the 'North' who is a political opportunist with an unsavoury background. No credibility and no hope. Higgins wins

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Congratulations to Martin McGuinness and the whole Sinn Fein team for showing leadership again. Thanks also to Peter Robinson whom some say knew last week Martin would put his name forward. If Gregory or Ian og had of found out the surprise would have been taken from the story.
    Anyway a new beginning for Ireland promised has taken another leap forward. Thanks again Peter.
    Eyes wide open

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    this is a smart move by martin and SF. If he does or doesnt get elected , its a great way for SF to expand their support in the south. I reckon the long term goal of all of this is to increase SF's seats in the Dail and when (or if) they have enough seats they could use there influence and power in the Dail and Stormount to bring about a United Ireland but that's just my opinion!


Comments 5 of 6



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