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My choice for president of Ireland is...

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Illustration by Cathy Bartholomew
In my trade you are often enough searching for a story idea to meet the deadline. I was lucky this morning in that two ideas came together with the coffee.

One was a lovely gentle memory about being required as a schoolboy to go out a-hunting yellow frogs for a farming aunt. She needed them badly for a particular purpose. The other idea had to do with our ongoing presidential election.

I'd much prefer to write the yellow frogs story for ye to be dead honest. However, since I occasionally dip my toes into your political world over there, (especially in relation to Madam Palin RIPP!), I suppose it would be amiss of me not to go the other road.

Our own Niall O’Dowd made a powerful point in our paper recently. In synopsis, when dealing with the arrival among the nominations of Martin McGuinness, and the subsequent attacks on him for having been an IRA leader, Niall observed that most of our former Irish leaders such as de Valera and Collins and Sean McBride all knew what the weight of a rifle was in their earlier years. And the smell of cordite.

Our first president, Sean T. O'Kelly, was an active member of the GPO garrison in 1916. McGuinness, now a canny peacemaker and politician, is walking along a well-trodden and indeed honorable Irish path, and Niall was quite correct in reflecting that the media and especially Fine Gael attacks on his background have been counter-productive as far as the nation is concerned. He is running strongly at time of writing.

I once closely observed McGuinness at prayer on a powerful occasion in Armagh Cathedral. Church and state were burying the popular Cardinal Tomas O'Fiach with all the pomp and solemnity that goes with that.

McGuinness and Gerry Adams were kneeling side by side beneath all the red hats of the Irish cardinals of the past. They are suspended from the dome. Some are so gossamered by age that, when the organ thundered and the choir sang, you could actually see visible dust falling from them through the stained glass sunlight. Dust to dust.

Below I was watching McGuinness, only a few yards away. He was sunk as deeply in prayer, quite obviously, as any monk at Matins.

Both Adams and himself received Communion too. A significant number of the other politicians in the congregation did not.

I was working on the day and I notice things, matterless enough things, like that. And I wondered who had the gunman been praying for.

I'm sure that, just like de Valera and Collins and MacBride and all the old IRA warriors, that there is a kind of Nightmare Room inside McGuinness’s head.

You can't keep the doors of such places locked all the time.

It is certain that in the past, in a different Ulster, he has done things and maybe caused things to be done that he now regrets. War is a dirty and painful business, especially guerrilla war. That is a fact.

I've spoken with old survivors of several wars in my time. The honest ones all said, in so many words, that the regrets and nightmares are never far away from them.

But, as with Sean MacBride especially, probably a man should be judged more on what path he took when the war was over than on the shots he fired during it.

On that basis, given his record in the conciliation process, and his part in the political process since then, it is my view that McGuinness is today well entitled to run for the presidency and, if elected, would serve this nation well.

What was it that the British intelligence officer once said? "You underestimate McGuinness at your peril." Our pollsters should bear this in mind during the next fortnight!

The campaign to date has been a predictable thing. David Norris has been destroyed by just one negative headline too many, and anyway has a kind of arrogant, elitist campaigning style which is not going down well.

The independent Sean Gallagher is putting in as good a show as Dana's is poor. Michael D. Higgins of Labor is leading the field, playing his cards cannily, and Gay Mitchell of Fine Gael, quite remarkably, has been a damp squib from Day One.

Mary Davis will poll respectably, but no more than that.

I said here a month ago, before the advent of McGuinness, that I would vote for Higgins even though I never voted for him before. He would -- and probably will -- make a fine president of Ireland.

But he is now getting my number two vote instead of the top one which I will give to McGuinness. He's a fellow Ulsterman, he has become one of the peacekeepers that matter on a daily basis, he has walked a hard road to date and kept going in the right direction. One has to respect that.

I would have preferred to have written about the yellow frogs, but sure that one can hold until we have a new president.

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