Presidential campaign set to intensify

Published 28/09/2011 | 12:06

ALL THOSE who thought the office of President had become boringly safe and predictable will have cause to reassess their views in light of the intensity of the current battle for the Aras - and particularly with the entry into the fray of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness.

Following the reign of the two Marys - Robinson and McAleese - who filled the office with such honour and distinction, we have come to see the President of Ireland as a warm, motherly sort of person who could be the embodiment of the 'Ireland of the welcomes' on trips abroad, who could draw a line under 700 years of troubled history with our nearest neighbour with a homely céad míle fáilte to the visiting queen of England, and who could sip tea and chat with the ladies of the ICA the next day. It would have seemed natural for another Mary to present herself this time out to continue the tradition, but instead things are very different.

It's now likely that we will have seven candidates vying for the presidency, each with a different perspective on the job and how they would fulfil the role of titular head of the country. They are a mixed bunch too, ranging from stolid conservative to gay liberal and from business guru to raging intellectual.

The campaign, thus far, has been notable for its controversy, most of all that surrounding Senator David Norris' letter of support for his paedophile former lover. It's not what we've come to expect from our presidential contests - but the Norris controversy faded into the shadows when Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness entered the race.

McGuinness, a former IRA leader, has a dark and dangerous past. Not enough is known about what he did or didn't do during the troubled years when over 7,000 people were killed in Northern Ireland and nothing he says in the course of the coming campaign is likely to shed much light on his secret history.

Given that the people of Ireland were happy to elect de Valera president, it wouldn't be anything new to have a former insurrectionist in the Aras. And McGuinness' campaign will justifiably make much of his role as a peacemaker in Northern Ireland.

Yet the devastation that was wreaked in the North and on the Irish nation as a whole during The Troubles is still a fresh and painful memory. McGuinness and his IRA comrades in arms were key players in the campaign of death and destruction and, regardless of his conversion to democratic politics, his past is not easily forgotten.

Fine Gael's Gay Mitchell is making much of the bizarre prospect of an ex IRA leader becoming the supreme commander of the Irish Army and believes that this, if nothing else, should rule McGuinness out as a prospective president.

He may be right in this, but the simpler reality is that the people will want to elect a president they feel they know and can trust and that alone puts Martin McGuinness with his shadowy past outside the frame.

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