SF proclaims McGuinness campaign an electoral coup
Published 29/10/2011 | 05:00
MARTIN McGuinness's third-place ranking has given Sinn Fein an electoral boost in the Republic, despite his campaign being dogged by repeated questions over his IRA past.
But the question now is whether his candidacy has reaffirmed the links between Sinn Fein and the IRA in the minds of middle-ground voters, thereby diluting any new-found support for the party its Dail team may have built up.
In a way, Mr McGuinness's candidacy was always going to be a win-win for the party, even though it was not thought likely the former IRA commander would make it to the Aras.
In the vacuum left by Fianna Fail's decision not to run a contender, the field was open for a high-profile figure to sweep in and shake up the race. Sinn Fein moved quickly to portray the result as an electoral coup. The party's deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald described it as a milestone election for Sinn Fein.
Although well short of the 19pc support he secured in the battle's early days, Mr McGuinness took 13.7pc on the first count -- up almost 4pc on where the party stood in the February gerneral election.
Mr McGuinness said the future was bright for the party in the Republic. "I think it's fantastic that we're continuing to build for the future," he said. "We are moving forward in a very decisive way."
The Derry-born politician, who topped the poll in Donegal North-East, will now return to the Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister post from which he temporarily stepped down, with a pat on the back from the party faithful.
The early days of the McGuinness campaign were dominated by repeated grillings about his IRA past, and questions over what he knew about killings such as Det Gda Jerry McCabe and Pte Patrick Kelly, an Irish soldier gunned down in a shoot-out to free kidnapped supermarket boss Don Tidey in 1983.
Opinion polls consistently placed him in third place, and although falling from an initial high, his standing was well ahead of Fine Gael's Gay Mitchell, which will be a serious blow to the government party.
Donegal North-East TD Padraig Mac Lochlainn said he believed middle of the road voters were "spooked" by the "ferocious" media scrutiny.
"I think middle ground didn't reject Sinn Fein, I think they were spooked by the idea that the president would be faced with endless controversy from a section of the Irish media," he said.
The latest poll last Monday showed that while support had fallen off, he remained in a commanding third place and on 5pc more than the party's general election standing.
Mr McGuinness's stellar campaign moment came in his cleverly crafted character assassination of Sean Gallagher in the 'Frontline' debate, where he raised questions about a €5,000 donation he received for a Fianna Fail fundraiser.
The allegations left the then poll-topper stumbling over himself, and led to the embarrassing slip-up that there may have been an "envelope" handed over -- a defining moment in the campaign.
This suckerpunch seemed to spark the shift in support away from Mr Gallagher.
More than anything, it will be remembered as the political high point of Martin McGuinness's campaign.