Will the McGuinness candidacy be an audacious use of Sinn Fein’s kitchen sink?

So who says the cutest hoors in Ireland are all from Dublin? We have one or two of our own in Belfast [And Carrigart? – Ed]. On Friday, Eamonn Mallie asked on Twitter why Martin McGuinness’ nascent bid to run for Irish President hadn’t got a mention on the Late Late Show made no mention of the only story in Belfast town.

Instead Tubridy and Co were focused on the Norris confession that he’s thinking about re-entry, in the context of the alleged collapse of confidence within Fianna Fail (whose pugnacious instincts are second only to those of northern Sinn Fein).

It’s clear that many commentators in the Republic still regard any residual interest in Sinn Fein as a peculiarly northern obsession. When you look at the figures, you can see why. The party barely registered 9% 10% in the popular vote in February.

In the case of Fianna Fail (one of several intended victims in this election) they’ve so far failed to show up for a fight where you can expect Sinn Fein to try their infamous ‘lend us’ your vote strategy with which they shucked SDLP of its political leadership within Northern Irish Nationalism.

A tense meeting is expected today in Leinster House… Will they turn on sixpence and belatedly take to the water? They may not have much to win, but they may have much more to lose…

The comparison with the SDLP is tempting, but it’s also misleading. For one thing, there’s the pre McGuinness announcement poll… Fianna Fail is already down by 7% points on February’s disasterous showing. Sinn Fein is up 1%. That puts FF on a mere 10%.

The truth is that Fianna Fail is not Sinn Fein’s only target. As the Irish Independent notes today:

…there is one candidate who is probably quite pleased by yesterday’s news. Fine Gael’s presidential candidate, the pugnacious Gay Mitchell, was always going to struggle against Labour’s Michael D Higgins.

He stands a much better chance now that Mr McGuinness is set to announce his candidacy. Nothing is more guaranteed to motivate the Fine Gael grassroots to get out and support Mr Mitchell than the prospect of a McGuinness presidency.

Mr Mitchell, whose campaign had been foundering, will now be able to tap into deep tribal loyalties. Suddenly his emphasis on Fine Gael’s traditional values has been transformed from a liability into an asset.

Throw in the Independents, Labour sceptics, and what’s left of the Fianna Fail republican base, and this could be, the party hopes, a transformative moment for Sinn Fein’s progress south of the border. But, even if as noted previously on Slugger, the opposition are not that far ahead, it still looks like a play, rather than a realizable goal.

As McGuinness steps down from his office as Deputy First Minister this morning, the criticism from the Unionist benches is likely to be muted. The leave of absence principle for political purposes was first induced by David Trimble and latterly by Peter Robinson.

Whilst I cannot see a downside for Sinn Fein (a win, although unlikely, would be a nice transition mechanism for a new leadership in Northern Ireland), Maurice Hayes is more sceptical:

No doubt Sinn Fein see this as an opportunity to establish themselves as the only all-Ireland party — which is fine as far as it goes. The sober truth is that electors show little interest at present in all-Ireland politics. A marked effect of recession and economic and fiscal crisis has been to drive people, North and South, into their fox-holes in the hope of mere survival.

To build a 32 county democracy, you first must build a single polis. For now, Sinn Fein’s cause of uniting the two parts of the island is shared only by a tiny minority in the south and polarises opinion in Northern Ireland such that the project is siloed into a tribal base.

McGuinness’s exposure south of the border will certainly be good for the party. Whether you believe that’s also good for the cause of Irish unity, is a matter of beleif (as Hayes hints above, there’s little evidence that’s why southerners vote for Sinn Fein).

Mr McGuinness’ ruthless past (‘Ah, death, certainly’) may make this dirty campaign, dirtier still. But, possibly, the more damaging may be Sinn Fein’s apparent inability to get anything done after four years in office (think students fees, think RPA, think education reform, think corporation tax) in the Northern Ireland Executive…

In the end, it is an audacious move, even if (having examined all the alternatives) Mr McGuinness constitutes the party’s proverbial kitchen sink.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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