McGuinness may have too much baggage for Ireland

IT IS NOT often that a man who wants to be president of a western democracy faces questions about whether he has blood on his hands.
But that is exactly what happened this week to Martin McGuinness, a former leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who is running for Ireland’s presidency.
Had he ever killed anyone in his time with the IRA? a reporter asked bluntly during an interview in Cork. “No,” he replied.
Mr McGuinness also denied that he had ever been indirectly responsible for people being killed by the IRA.
“I didn’t say I never fired a gun – I was in the IRA. There were battles on the streets of Derry. I’ve never run away from that,” he said.
But he has never answered for it either, and that is what troubles his critics.
Northern Ireland is at peace, the IRA supposedly disbanded, and Mr McGuinness is one of the chief architects of this new political landscape. Whether the people of the Irish republic will see fit to reward him with the position of head of state is another question, but his bold move has added spice to what had been a rather bland election.
Mr McGuinness, 61, belongs to Sinn Fein (Ourselves Alone), the political arm of the Irish republican movement. Until he nominated for the presidency he was the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, a role in which he served at first beside his longtime foe, unionist leader Ian Paisley. The two had worked together to produce the Good Friday peace accord in 1998. They developed such a good public relationship, joking in front of the cameras, that they were nicknamed “the chuckle brothers”.
“There’s a lot of admiration for McGuinness as someone who was central to the peace process in Northern Ireland and none of his critics would take any of that away from him,” said Fintan O’Toole, a political columnist with The Irish Times. “He’s been a very effective player and the way he bonded with Ian Paisley and entered the executive is amazing, really.”
It has allowed Mr McGuinness to brand himself a peacemaker – and this is where O’Toole baulks.
“A lot of people have difficulty in that regard with someone who embodied the values of the IRA for such a long time and has never given a proper account of what he’s done in the IRA,” he said. “He’s effectively refusing even to discuss it, claiming questions about it are politically motivated … The point of the IRA was to kill people.”
By the age of 21, Mr McGuinness was second in command of the IRA in Londonderry. The inquiry into Bloody Sunday concluded he was probably carrying a Thompson submachine-gun that day but had done nothing to trigger the soldiers’ shooting.
In 1973, he was jailed for six months after being caught in a car with 113 kilograms of explosives and nearly 5000 rounds of ammunition. It has since been claimed that they were not intended to kill anybody.
But O’Toole said he and many others question some of Mr McGuinness’s denials. He spoke of the 1700 people killed by the IRA, 644 of whom were civilians, and the many more who were tortured or maimed.
“There are families in Northern Ireland on both sides who feel very raw,” he said. “There has never been accountability, never been a trial. No one has been held responsible for their loved ones.”
But a flash poll associated with an afternoon talk show seen as an uncanny barometer of middle Ireland found Mr McGuinness to be the favourite candidate, with 5700 votes, 200 votes ahead of the next most popular choice. He has said that he considered himself to be part of a new atmosphere: “The people of Ireland have watched the political progress that Gerry Adams and I have been at the heart of for many years.”
He has promised that he will take only the average wage, about €35,000 ($47,712), and give the rest of the €250,000 salary back to the Irish people, a move that might mollify voters resentful about Ireland’s austerity program.
Sinn Fein is well placed to harness the anger of the many people disillusioned with the establishment following the crash that brought in the International Monetary Fund, says Elaine Byrne, lecturer in politics at Trinity College, Dublin.
In the south, Sinn Fein “has always been a small party on the periphery who object to everything. There’s the Sinn Fein in power in the north which is introducing cuts; the one in the south is opposed to all cuts,” she said.
Dr Byrne also pointed out that younger generations had no personal memory of the Troubles.
O’Toole said that to many nationalists, Mr McGuinness is a positive figure. “There’s a great desire in a country going through tough times to have a hero,” he said. But there is the delicate question of how Mr McGuinness would manage the Queen. Like all Sinn Fein MPs, who want a united Ireland, Mr McGuinness refused to take his seat at Westminster, and the party avoided all events associated with the Queen’s visit to Ireland. But Mr McGuinness said he would be prepared to meet all heads of state “without exception” if elected on October 27.
One critic pointed out the issue might be whether the Queen was prepared to meet him: the IRA murdered Prince Philip’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, in 1979.
Dr Byrne and O’Toole believe Mr McGuinness will poll well but ultimately not get over the line. Dr Byrne said he was unlikely to attract enough preferences from other candidates. She pointed out that this term of office holds special significance: whoever wins will preside over the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, the rebellion that started the chain of events that led to Irish independence.
“These are emotional things in Ireland,” she said. “It’s all very fresh in people’s minds.”