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Martin McGuinness' run for presidency may insult some but we can't run from our past

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Presidential candidate Martin McGuinness
I had to admit I was slightly surprised at first that Sinn Féin were seeking an internal candidate to contest the Presidency, on the basis that the touted names wouldn’t exactly be setting anyone’s world alight.

Mary Lou McDonald? As electable as diabetes. Michelle Gildernew? Barely known south of Aughnacloy. But then, they pulled the rabbit out of the hat: Martin McGuinness. I can’t imagine for the life of me why.

Of course, on a certain level it makes a lot of sense: a republican heavyweight recognised around the world attempts to become President bang on time for the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. But of course the flipside to that is the whirlpool of questions about his role in some of the darker corners of his and the country’s history the Presidential race has become.

McGuinness himself seems to have been genuinely surprised at the focus on his time in the IRA while he falls over himself to be statesmanlike and magnanimous, which demonstrates either surprising naiveté or a man so post-nationalist he’s genuinely forgot all about it.

While you have to wonder at the wisdom at the move, and how prepared all concerned were, his candidacy has unearthed the curious double standard at the heart of Irish politics.

First of all, to put my own cards on the table: I’m as much of a republican as James Connolly was a Progressive Democrat. I can’t think of an issue I care less about than the physical unity of Ireland: as long as I can talk freely to my friends in Belfast who grew up in different communities to me or roam into Derry whenever I want I don’t care if the place is governed by Ireland, Britain or Tuvalu.
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While the resurgence of the IRA didn’t happen in a vacuum in the late 60s and it’s easy to understand why people joined in those early days, I’ve never thought what they considered to be their war to be anything but counter-productive, misguided and ultimately malevolent. In many ways, I’m probably typical of the West Brit media types Martin McGuinness has been railing against in the last couple of days. But while I don’t have any intention to vote for him, and while I think he was mad to run in the first place, I have no inherent hostility to his candidacy either.

The whole point of the drive for peace and reconciliation is that it’s infinitely better for republicans who were violent in the past to be brought in from the cold, to categorically accept the mechanisms of a democratic state and reject and condemn their past sins and work towards a situation where that can never happen again, rather than be isolated for ever more. Taking everyone who had a damaging role during The Troubles and winging them into a far-flung cave might make certain people feel better, but it solves no problem.

It’s only right that McGuinness is rigorously taken to task over his past now he’s resolved to try and become head of state, and he really should do some manning up and react to these concerns in a less tetchy, victimised manner, but there seems to be a case of historical statute of limitations among some of his critics. Eamon de Valera became Commander in Chief of the defence forces less than forty years after prompting a civil war and promising to wade through the blood of the soldiers of the Irish government.

Sean Lemass, generally feted as one of the best Taoisigh the country has ever had, famously referred to Fianna Fáil as a slightly constitutional party at the start of his career. Some FF TD’s had guns in their pockets on their first day in the Dáil. Michael Collins, father figure of Fine Gael and heralded on television by one Michael McDowell as Ireland’s greatest ever figure, hardly lived a bloodless life either. And even excluding all that, in five years time there will be massive nationwide celebrations of the anniversary of a small minority of the Irish Volunteer Force unilaterally declaring insurrection while a programme for Irish self-determination was agreed upon and ready to be enforced by elected Irish officials. To the best of my knowledge, the men and women of the Rising didn’t fight the Brits by lobbing water balloons at them.

The sad fact of Irish history is that it is drenched in blood, and that has left a legacy we all struggle with, but we have to deal with that legacy in its entirety: if we deplore the use of the gun in 1972, we can’t intellectually detach ourselves from the fact the use of the gun was deplorable in 1922 as well.

Whether McGuinness’ run for the Presidency was a naive political miscalculation, a case of ego clouding better judgement, or even a deliberately high risk strategy to wipe Fianna Fáil’s eye, the announcement has opened up an uneasy and ill-tempered argument. While disappointing, if for no other reason than so much time is being spent discussing the last 40 years of a man who isn’t going to win anyway rather than focusing on what the candidates can do in the next seven, if the debate makes us think more widely about the leaders of our bullet-riddled past and acts as an ultimate last stand for sympathy of any kind for those sort of politics, perhaps it will be worth it.

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