Sinn Fein’s audacious move to the south in putting Martin McGuinness’s name into the Presidential ring has several aspects. One, the simplest, it has livened up an election which was looking like the dullest political event on the island since, erm, perhaps the last Assembly election.
On the face of it that’s a distinct advantage. It gets Mr McGuinness more face time than any Sinn Fein TD could ever wish for. Defacto, it also means that for now, the story is about him, and he can reasonably expect to freeze his opponents out of the action: not least Fianna Fail who in their Leinster House redoubt, seem to have be cut loose and adrift from their moorings.
Anthony McIntyre with a nicely judged ‘depth charge’:
The opportunity to make further gains has been gifted to the party because Fianna Fail, having botched the Gay Byrne option, then pulled up short in the warm up to the race for the presidency. Fianna Fail left dangerously exposed by its own ineptitude can hardly claim to be taken aback by the appearance of a menacing Sinn Fein U Boat alongside its own rudderless vessel.
It opens up a second front in which for the first time the party will be fighting a range of opponents on a prominent national platform.
But it also is clear from his hasty departure from an interview with the BBC’s generally mild mannered Mark Curruthers that the preparation of the candidate for the campaign has not been everything it might. It suggests that this was a genuinely opportunistic move, with a very short lead in to prepare the candidate for what is likely to be a very bumpy campaign.
This is nothing compared to the kind of scrutiny that he’s likely to get from the southern media, as Tommie Gorman has noted, ‘not hostile, but more competitive than the media in the north where they have their own pre-occupations’. Indeed.
And this is where the down side begins to assert itself. In Northern Ireland McGuinness (for what its worth, winner of several Slugger Awards) has carved himself a niche as a respected player on the local stage. In comparison with Gerry Adams, his is relatively speaking a much safer bet for running the gauntlet of a press who have already dispatched one candidate from the race.
Almost whatever emerges that is unlikely outcome for this candidate. If SF know how to do anything it is to ship political pain on an industrial scale. And in the, as yet, unlikely scenario that he wins the race, forget all those jokes about United Ireland by 1916: a Sinn Fein President sitting in the Aras and Fianna Fail, who once saw themselves as the Rottweilers of Dev’s Republic (if they still exist in current form) will be the ones with their faces pressed to the gates of the former Vice Regal Lodge.
That’s the political prize Sinn Fein’s superbly Machiavellian move seeks, if not deserves… In that scenario they might expect even a fairly toxic campaign to have a cleansing effect on their ‘war record’. But some awkward complications are likely to arise between now and then, which are perhaps more obvious to a southern rather than the northern eye.
Pointing to the compromise made by Unionists in powersharing in Northern Ireland one southern commentator told Slugger, “that’s okay for Unionists. Having agreed to share the spoils, the Unionists are guaranteed the greater part. And, frankly, they don’t care what Sinn Fein does with its share”.
Foremost, is one that some observers have called the Waldheim problem. Fintan O’Toole in today’s Irish Times argues that this could put McGuinness as a future Head of State in a precarious position:
The IRA killed 644 civilians, by far the largest category of its victims (by contrast, and contradicting its self-image as defender of the Catholic community, it killed just 28 loyalist paramilitaries). It incinerated, for example, the members of the Irish Collie Club at the La Mon Hotel. It killed children, including Nicholas Knatchbull, Jonathan Ball, Tim Parry and Paul Maxwell.
It practised kidnapping, torture, and acts of naked sadism, such as forcing Patsy Gillespie to drive a van loaded with explosives at an army checkpoint. (Widespread revulsion did not stop the IRA from trying this tactic again.) It held kangaroo courts and imposed arbitrary sentences that included mutilation through so-called “knee-capping”. All of these are war crimes for which there is no statute of limitations.
I don’t know what personal role McGuinness may have played in any incident. However, what is clear is that he was, for almost the entire period of the conflict, in a position of authority within the IRA. Legally and morally, this makes him responsible. [Emphasis added]
More disturbing from an Irish point of view is the unintended import of some of the residual effects of the conflict, and the potential role the British secret service may have in the conduct of Office of President of what (despite much chatter to the contrary) remains an independent state. This case is eloquently put by Crispin Black in yesterday’s First Post:
Even if he was never on the British pay roll his security file is likely to be extensive. Either way HMG knows, to coin a phrase, where the bodies are buried. In the unlikely event that he is elected he may prove a very compliant ninth President of the Irish Republic.
Mr McGuinness’ Loose talk about West Brits may yet come home to haunt him…
As ever, it is better to wait than rush to judgement. But Mr McGuinness’s famously short fuse may not be his greatest asset in already dirty fight that can only get dirtier. Of course, that’s a two edged sword itself. The party is spending its strongest asset, but in a territory where its northern leadership have little instinct for what could be highly unpredictable terrain.
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