Environment Minister Phil Hogan has said that US multinational companies would be "appalled" if Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein was President and that Ireland's competitors for foreign direct investment would "not be slow to whisper about a terrorist in the Park".
Mr Hogan has told the Sunday Independent: "Putting Mr McGuinness in charge of this State would leave us looking like a Banana Republic... (which) could denude Ireland of serious levels of corporate investment within 24 months."
In a trenchant attack, the Fine Gael minister has also expressed concern that a "constitutional crisis" could arise, should further infor-mation in relation to the "murky" past of Mr McGuinness emerge while the former Provisional IRA leader was President.
He said: "The absence of an impeachment process within the Irish Constitution means that we could be heading for an unprecedented stand-off -- where both Houses of the Oireachtas would vote 'no confidence' in Mr McGuinness but he would refuse to resign."
THE questions that must be asked Analysis and poll details, pages 2, 14, 25, 27, 28, 29, 30
The spotlight will now turn to the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and to the Fine Gael candidate, Gay Mitchell, to establish whether they support the views of the Environment Minister.
Last week both Mr Kenny and Mr Mitchell refused to be drawn into criticism expressed by senior Fine Gael figures as to the suitability of Mr McGuinness to be President.
The Taoiseach said that he was focused wholly on Mr Mitchell's campaign. "I have never commented on people in any kind of election," he said."
Mr Mitchell, in radio and television interviews, also sought to remain removed from the issue.
Should Mr Kenny and Mr Mitchell choose not to unequivocally endorse the comments of the Environment Minister, the possibility exists that the intervention of Mr Hogan could actually rebound against Fine Gael.
In the absence of support from the Taoiseach and Mr Mitchell, Fine Gael runs the risk of leaving itself open to the accusation of trying to fight a 'clean' and a 'dirty' campaign; at the very least it will be accused of running a confused election.
Mr Hogan, however, said his intervention was "not a case of the gloves being off or black propaganda". He said: "It is, instead, a case of facts being made clear and hard truths being said."
The predicament in which Fine Gael has landed itself comes as a Sunday Independent/Quantum Research opinion poll has found that Michael D Higgins of Labour is the clear favourite to win the Presidency and that Mr Mitchell is still failing to make a meaningful impact.
Excluding the Don't Knows, the poll shows: Michael D Higgins (27 per cent), David Norris (20 per cent), Sean Gallagher (13 per cent), Mary Davis (12 per cent), Martin McGuinness (11 per cent), Gay Mitchell (10 per cent) and Dana Rosemary Scallon (7 per cent).
For the first time the 500 people polled nationwide were also asked for their second preference: analysis shows that Mr Higgins is by far most the most transfer friendly candidate, which presents a conclusion that the election is his to lose.
For example, according to the poll, Mr Higgins will win the second preferences of supporters of Ms Davis (29 per cent), Mr Gallagher (27 per cent), Mr McGuinness (23 per cent), Mr Mitchell (28 per cent), Mr Norris (45 per cent) and Dana Rosemary Scallon (22 per cent).
At 20 per cent overall support, Mr Norris also performs reasonably well on second preference votes in the poll, but at this early stage he is short of the level of support required to mount a serious challenge to Mr Higgins.
Mr McGuinness, meanwhile, is showing to be transfer toxic and seems certain to be eliminated before Sinn Fein may have expected, perhaps before even Mr Mitchell and the independents, Mary Davis and Sean Gallagher, both of whom are showing to be transfer friendly.
The poll has also found a significant majority (68 per cent) want Mr Norris to publish the remaining letters, and any other relevant material he sent to Israel in a plea for clemency for his former partner, Ezra Nawi, who was convicted of sex with a minor.
But an even larger majority (85 per cent) said it was important for Mr McGuinness to give full details of his knowledge of events surrounding the murder of Frank Hegarty, a victim of the Provisional IRA. And 75 per cent of those polled say they do not believe that Mr McGuinness ceased to be involved with the Provisional IRA in 1974, as he has sought to claim.
Notwithstanding the attempt by Fine Gael to have it both ways on the issue of the candidacy of Mr McGuinness, Mr Hogan's comments are expected to dominate the campaign this week.
The Environment Minister told the Sunday Independent: "Electing McGuinness could do irreparable harm to Ireland's international reputation. We have spent six hard months dragging Ireland's name out of the gutter... The results of this are being seen in our decreasing bond yields, by the real likelihood that at some point in the next three years we will be in Dublin Airport saying goodbye to the Troika.
"But should we elect a President, as ambassador of this State, with a past that is as murky as McGuinness's, we will undo all that work."
Mr Hogan claimed that, should Mr McGuinness be elected, "US multinationals would be appalled at the message this would send".
In particular, he said, "our competitors for multi-national investment, who are across the water, would not be slow to start whispering about the terrorist in the Park".
He said the United States was "understandably hostile to the notion of former terrorists, who were once close to regimes such as Libya, holding the Presidency" and, he said, that such an outcome "could denude Ireland of serious levels of corporate investment within 24 months".
He added: "We would not be just electing Mr McGuinness as President. We would be legitimising a lot of very shadowy people hanging around the fringes of Mr McGuinness.
"Could we assume, for example, that close associates of Mr McGuinness such as Mr Slab Murphy would not be invited to special garden parties in the Aras?"
THE questions that must be asked Analysis and poll details pages 2, 14, 25, 27, 28, 29, 30
Mr Hogan also warned that Mr McGuinness as President could lead to a series of rows that would "distract both the Government and the Presidency from the critical need to act in a coherent, unified way to rebuild a shattered state".
He said: "We cannot afford to dissipate our energies in a series of futile wars centred on using the Presidency to advance the objectives of a political party rather than the country itself."
He added: "By electing Mr McGuinness, Ireland would be taking a dangerous chance in a scenario where we have six other choices."
While he acknowledged the role played by Mr McGuinness in the peace process, he said: "This is not the time to take the chance of putting a Sinn Fein President in the Aras. We still have not fully moved on in the manner we need to."
He added: "There is too much unfinished business surrounding Mr McGuinness. Anything from his past could blow up."
In this regard, he said, it was "entirely possible new information about the acts of Mr McGuinness could lead to a constitutional crisis where all parties, except Sinn Fein, reach a position where it is not tolerable for Mr McGuinness to represent the Irish people.
"The absence of an impeachment process within the Irish Constitution means we could be heading for an unprecedented stand-off."
"This is a matter of a fundamental philosophical conflict. We are State builders. Sinn Fein, in contrast, up to very recently, have been State wreckers."