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All the President's gunmen

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Martin McGuinness greets a Kerry football fan in Dublin on Sunday
We have resisted writing about the presidential election in Ireland so far because up to now it's been hard to take seriously. That's mainly because of the candidates who have presented themselves this time, mostly a B-list of minor politicians and minor public figures all with delusions about their own importance and abilities.

There were one or two exceptions to this. But mostly it's been a parade of pygmies with inflated egos, all of them spouting nonsense about leadership and their vision for Ireland in the future.  (Memo to all candidates -- the Irish President has no real power.)

Quite frankly, our presidential election so far has been an embarrassment. We will recap on the other candidates in a moment, but first the dramatic news last weekend that has changed everything.

At a stroke, this has been turned into the most electric and controversial presidential election we have ever had here.

We are, of course, talking about the entrance into the race of Martin McGuinness, former IRA gunman and IRA leader, Sinn Fein peacemaker, current Northern Ireland deputy first minister and, until Ian Paisley's recent retirement, one half of the Chuckle Brothers comedy duo.

That's an impressive CV Martin has. But only one part of it, the very first part, is going to matter here in the next few weeks.

Stories about all the aspiring President's gunmen will be making so many headlines in the next few weeks that everything and everyone else in this presidential race will be, ahem, blown away.

It's going to be a simple choice here. You will either be For Martin or Against Martin.

And it's likely to be a very bitter and angry debate. There won't be many chuckles around, that's for sure.
So let's get stuck into it right away. The first problem is Martin's many years as an IRA gunman and IRA leader, neither of which he denies.

In that role, like all IRA men, he did not accept the legitimacy of the 26-county Irish state.  Nor did he accept that the Irish army was the legitimate army of the state, since the IRA believed that, legally, that was their role, covering all of the island of Ireland.

The president of Ireland is the head of the Irish state and also the commander in chief of the Irish army.  Under our Constitution the president, on the advice of the taoiseach (prime minister), appoints the members of the government, the judges and army officers.

McGuinness wants to be president, but he has spent around two decades as a leading member of an illegal army that refused to accept any of this. The IRA refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Irish state, the Irish army, and the Irish courts.

There is also the problem that the president's main role in Irish politics is protecting the Constitution and safeguarding the democratic decisions of the Irish people. But Martin's loyalty was to the IRA, not to our Constitution.

He did not accept the democratic wish of the Irish people, expressed time and again in national votes, that the murderous campaign of the IRA should stop.
 
Not only did he not accept this, but he himself was an IRA leader and active IRA man when some of the most shocking and disgusting IRA violence was perpetrated.

But that's all ancient history, I hear you say. Since then we've had the peace process, in which Martin played a leading role, bringing the IRA to the point where their so-called war was ended and their weapons were decommissioned (most of them, anyway).  

It's time to move on, you say. These days Martin is a democratic politician, not a gunman. If he can chuckle away with Unionists like Paisley and Peter Robinson, surely it's time for us in the south to turn the page of history as well.

And I completely agree with you. But it would help if Martin were to tell us that the IRA has completely disbanded, that the IRA Army Council no longer exists and that its members now accept that the army of the Irish state is the only legitimate army in the country.

Above all, we need some straight talking from him. In other words, we don't need him telling us that he doesn't know, or can't talk on behalf of the IRA or what's left of it.
 
I know that last weekend Martin said that he accepted that he, like other IRA members, had a duty to heal the hurt their actions in the past caused to people.

That is welcome and there will need to be a lot more of it.  But it's not the same as saying that the actions he is referring to were wrong.  We will need to hear more on that score over the coming weeks from him.
If we accept that his IRA activity was well intentioned and the product of his past and the country's past, will he now accept and publicly state that the bloody IRA campaign was wrong and, since it did not have the backing of the Irish people, illegitimate?

And will he express sorrow that it ever happened?

He will need to be a lot clearer on this than he was last weekend when he was asked to condemn the IRA murder of Detective Garda (Police Officer) Jerry McCabe. At first he used the familiar Sinn Fein/IRA verbal trick of calling it "a terrible tragedy" and talking about understanding the grief of the family without actually condemning the murder.

A few hours later, realizing that this was not going to be enough, he told reporters that he did "unreservedly condemn it."  But it had to be dragged out of him. And that suggests that his old attitudes are just beneath the surface.

You may say that this is all southern hypocrisy. If we think it's okay for McGuinness to be deputy first minister in Northern Ireland, why is it not okay for him to be president in the South?

If people in the North, particularly the Unionists, were prepared to compromise for the sake of peace, why can't people in the south do the same?

Well, the answer to that one is pretty simple -- we don't have to. A fudge or a compromise was necessary in the North to establish the peace and get an administration in place.

In the south we don't have to compromise, and many people here will not be willing to do so. Either Martin comes clean, or he will have no chance of getting their vote.

We're only at the start of this, of course. The election is not until October 27 so there will be plenty of time to question McGuinness.

The next few weeks will be fascinating.  And you can expect lots of questions about funding.

McGuinness’s assertion that if elected he will only accept the average blue collar salary is all very well.  But what about the Northern Ireland Bank robbery millions? Will the IRA be giving any of that back?
In spite of all that, McGuinness may do well in this election. He is an engaging campaigner and there is a lot of appreciation out there for the role he has played in the peace process.

And the other factor is the weakness of the other candidates.

There's Ireland's most famous gay, Senator David Norris, who was in the race, withdrew, but is now trying to re-enter.  His problem is not his sexual orientation but his lack of judgment (Google him for the details).

Then there's veteran Labor politician Michael D. Higgins, always politically correct and full of righteous liberal rage.  Both of these guys blather endlessly and are far too emotional and impulsive for politics.

There are a few other minor candidates, including a businessman from Dragon's Den (our version of Shark Tank), a woman who ran the Special Olympics here, our former Eurovision star Dana,  and possibly an elderly Fianna Fail Senator who is a big name in Irish traditional music (although since Fianna Fail is not fielding a candidate, he will have to run as an independent).

For a while Fianna Fail tried to talk the Patron Saint of Irish Television, Gay Byrne, into running but after agonizing about it for days he eventually decided against. That was a relief because he was clearly going to be out of his depth -- the kind of simplistic views about complex problems he used to offer on radio and TV could not be put forward by a president.

Even the publisher of the Irish Voice toyed with the possibility of being our eighth president. Niall O'Dowd would have been a more coherent and articulate candidate than most of those mentioned above. But, in spite of his role in the peace process it was always going to be a long shot coming back from the U.S. to run here, and after testing the water he withdrew.  

Finally, there is Fine Gael politician Gay Mitchell, a member of the European Parliament, a very shrewd Dubliner with working class roots and easily the most impressive candidate in the field. He's a no nonsense guy with loads of experience who would be slightly right of centre on most issues.

But his big problem is that he's lacking in the charisma department and is struggling in the polls. And after the two Marys, charisma is seen as an important attribute for our president.

So looking at the rest of the field so far you would have to say that it's a B-list of candidates and not a very inspiring race.   There's no stand out potential president among them.

Looking at them you would have to think that McGuinness must have a good chance simply because of his huge profile at home and abroad. It's a pity about his past.  

As I said above, it will be very much a case of Martin against the rest.  Fianna Fail decided not to run their own candidate because they need time to rebuild the party after their destruction in the general election.

But they will do everything they can to undermine McGuinness because if he is successful he could take all the soft Republican constitutional Nationalists who are the Fianna Fail bedrock.  And that could see Fianna Fail collapsing altogether and being subsumed into Sinn Fein.

Everyone else will oppose McGuinness because the whiff of gunfire is still hanging about him.  At this stage it's all to play for.

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