Presidential election candidate Michael D Higgins has launched a surprise and very personalized attack on Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and his IRA past.
Responding to a set of questions posed by the Sunday Independent newspaper, Higgins has claimed that McGuinness is using the election to "rationalize and endorse" the Provisional IRA’s historic use of violence.
Now second in the opinion polls to the Independent candidate Sean Gallagher, the Higgins rant looks certain to damage his prospects of winning all important transfers from the Sinn Fein vote.
The Labor Party veteran has gone so far as to suggest that Sinn Fein should not be allowed to claim ownership of the peace process during this Presidential election.
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He also claimed there is a "clear conflict" between McGuinness’s own account of his time in the IRA and evidence made available to previous Irish governments.
“Irish people want a President who will be honest and open. I believe it would be helpful if the conflict over different accounts was faced up to and answers given,” Higgins told the Sunday Independent.
Higgins added: “Personally I am absolutely and unequivocally opposed to the campaign of violence carried out by the IRA. I have always highlighted my political opposition and personal revulsion to that violence.
“I would be particularly concerned if this presidential election campaign was to be used to seek some sort of rationalization of or endorsement for that campaign.
“I expect the electorate would want to consider not just the recent record of Martin McGuinness but also his record overall.”
Admitting that McGuinness meets all the constitutional requirements for nomination, Higgins accepted his right to stand for election.
The Galway academic also pointed to his own role in "acknowledging the need for courageous steps to end the conflict in the North."
He maintained: “In this regard as minister with responsibility for broadcasting, I took the decision to end the ministerial directive under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, which banned appearances on the airwaves by members of Sinn Fein and a number of other organizations.
“My decision, which was based on my confidence in the judgement of the public, was strongly criticized by some people at the time, but I believe that it contributed significantly to creating a climate where peace was possible.
“I am particularly proud of the role played by my then party leader, Dick Spring and by John Hume and the many other members of our sister party in Northern Ireland, the SDLP.
“I believe that people are capable of change and I accept the statements made by Martin McGuinness that he has rejected violence and that he is committed to democratic politics.
“In this context, a clear statement from him condemning such incidents as the murders of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe and Private Patrick Kelly and Garda recruit Gary Sheehan would undoubtedly help reassure the public.”