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Saturday 17 March 2018

Darker deeds of McGuinness's past cast a very long shadow

THE candidate plonked himself on the floor of the creche in among a handful of wide-eyed toddlers who were playing with toy trains. "I love train sets," he declared happily, and immediately started negotiating with one little chap. "I'll push this one around to you, like this. Choo choo," he hooted with the utter unselfconsciousness of a seasoned grandfather.

What a collection of contradictions, what a walking dichotomy between past actions and present utterances, what a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma is the man called Martin McGuinness.

In 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a creepy story which became an instant bestseller. Titled 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde', it told the tale of pillar of society Dr Henry Jekyll and his violent alter ego, Edward Hyde. It's the time-old story of the struggle of good versus evil, but one in which it became harder and harder for the main character to keep his duelling personalities apart.

Martin has no such trouble. His rationale as he tours the country on this presidential campaign is that his past is a different country.

He was "a very, very young man" when he pledged an oath of allegiance to the IRA -- an oath which he can't remember "word-for-word" now, as he told Newstalk's breakfast show yesterday morning. And he has never deviated from his statement that he quit the IRA in 1974.

He insists that his battle with his violent demons is long over. He is, and has been for almost two decades, a peacemaker, a key lynchpin in the slow dropping of peace in the North.

He's a legitimate politician who has served as Minister for Education and who forged an unlikely alliance as deputy first minister, first with Ian Paisley and then with Peter Robinson. He knows Nelson Mandela.

But life is messier than that, and life stories don't come in neatly compartmentalised boxes. There are many voters, to judge by his high standing in the recent opinion polls, who are supporting him for president, either for what he once represented, or for what he stands for now.

But there are also many who can't see Martin Jekyll without also seeing Martin Hyde, a smiling, avuncular, friendly, chatty politician of the present who is stalked by ever-present ghosts of a bloodied past.

What to make of him? Is he a leopard who has sincerely and irrevocably changed his spots or is he the consummate chameleon who can skilfully camouflage his true colours?

Can Martin McGuinness unshackle himself from the darker deeds of his time in the IRA (however long that time was) -- he knows he can't deny his past, but can he convince the electorate that it isn't germane to taking on the office of Uachtaran na hEireann?

The short answer is that probably he can't. And the reason he can't is because of citizens like David Kelly.

IT was a powerful piece of TV when Martin's present and past became entangled in Athlone on Monday, when he was confronted by David, the son of Private Patrick Kelly who was shot dead in a gun battle with the kidnappers of supermarket boss Don Tidey in 1983.

David, clutching a photograph of the father he had lost at the age of nine, stared Martin in the eye and called him "a liar". Unflinching, he told the crowd gathered around the Sinn Fein candidate: "My soldier dad was killed by the IRA and he knows who did it". Martin kept his calm and replied that he didn't know who was responsible for killing his father, "but I fully and absolutely sympathise with you". And yesterday he offered to meet privately with David Kelly.

And yet to be fair, there are warm welcomes for Martin too. Yesterday he visited the impressive Dominic's Community Centre in Tallaght, a cheerful, efficient hive of activity which contains a host of services including pre-school classes, crochet groups, Irish dancing, tea-dances, a FAS healthcare course and various help groups.

He was almost an hour late -- a previous engagement in the area had run late -- but there were no recriminations from the mixed crowd of men and women of all ages who were waiting to meet him.

He toured the various rooms, and had a chat with the dozen or so people on the FAS course. The question of his presidential salary arose, and he assured them that he would only take the average wage if he made it into the Aras.

Martin's a good canvasser. He's relaxed around people, joshing with the old fellas and at ease talking to young mothers.

He's five grandchildren of his own, from 12 down to six, he explained.

"I love them to bits," he said. When the oldest was three, he added, Martin bent down to tie his laces.

"He tapped me on the head, and asked, 'Martin, what's in heads?'" laughed this complex candidate.

Out of the mouths of babes.

Comment: Pages 22 & 25

Irish Independent

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