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Fionnan Sheahan: Another fateful blow dealt to the Soldiers of Destiny


Sinn Fein's celebrated discipline held up firmly as the party mulled over its presidential options.

To be fair, the party conducted a debate on whether to run a candidate relatively openly with a number of its younger TDs stating their preference.

Sinn Fein seemed to be quite happy for names to circulate, such as Mary-Lou McDonald, Michelle Gildernew, Caoimhghin O Caolain and even Tyrone football manager Mickey Harte.

Given the advance speculation also surrounding Martin McGuinness, it was hardly a shock when he was announced as the party's candidate.

But the decision was certainly an attention grabber.

The idea of a former IRA chief-of-staff becoming the supreme commander of the Defence Forces certainly raises a few eyebrows.

The move to run McGuinness is a signal of intent from Sinn Fein.

Already last night, the announcement was lauded in republican circles as the most audacious act by the movement since IRA hunger-strike prisoner Bobby Sands stood as an MP.

However, just as Gerry Adams came in for intense scrutiny when he ventured south to run in the general election, McGuinness will also come under the spotlight.

Adams's lack of basic knowledge about economic and domestic policy stuck out like a sore thumb during that campaign and he has struggled to make an impact in the Dail over the past six months.

However, McGuinness has proved through his service in Northern Ireland's power-sharing government to be a more substantial figure with a greater grasp of minutiae than Adams.

McGuinness is not to be underestimated.

Similar to David Norris, he will find his own past being delved into in detail.

The Independent senator's colourful life fades into insignificance when compared with the Sinn Fein chief.

From IRA street fighter to peace process negotiator through to Northern Ireland deputy first minister working on a daily basis with unionists, he has seen a lot and has yet to reveal much of it.

The personality-based nature of a presidential campaign means McGuinness will have to be seen to be making some effort to come clean on his past.

Although McGuinness will certainly shake-up a rather lacklustre field of unexciting candidates, Sinn Fein will have to know that even considering victory at this stage would be a severe stretch.

Not to be ruled out completely, as anything can happen in such a packed ticket, but not to be expected either.

McGuinness will have an impact on the race though and will assist other parties, particularly Fine Gael and Labour, to up their game in support of their candidates.

The prospect of Sinn Fein taking the Aras in time for the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising will serve as a motivational tool for their opponents.

Nonetheless, Sinn Fein can see an obvious benefit from running a candidate with the advantage of using the campaign as a platform to put forward its policies.

McGuinness' entry is arguably prompted and made all the more intriguing by the failure of Fianna Fail to contest the election.

The development will certainly raise concerns about the loss of the republican identity to Sinn Fein.

However, Fianna Fail would be ill-advised to go back on their decision to stay out of the race or even running a surrogate candidate.

The calculated gamble of the Sinn Fein strategists is in marked contrast to the disarray in Fianna Fail at the moment.

Just when party leader Micheal Martin was trying to move on from the debacle of the botched approach to Gay Byrne and the acrimonious departure of Brian Crowley from the race, Fianna Fail has reopened the bitter discussion.

The party appears to be divided between the realists, who are focused on the longer-term rebuilding project, and the fundamentalists, who want to continue with business as usual.

Running a Fianna Fail senator as an Independent candidate will do nothing for the party's already waning credibility.

Martin badly needs to show he is still in command of his party by killing off the fractious internal debate about the presidency.

Anything less than a swift dismissal of the idea of nominating Independent candidates -- bizarrely from within their own ranks -- will be seen as a further defeat for the leader.

Martin faces a test of his mettle next Tuesday when his party reconvenes their six-hour debate on what is a minimal issue.

Coming out of the conundrum with a result might send a signal that Martin is winning the battle against the diehards to reform the party. But he won't get a whole lot of credit because the affair has dragged on for so long.

Fianna Fail will have to hand this round to Sinn Fein and stay off the pitch. But the two parties are going to clash again down the line.

Sinn Fein's progress will advance a step further with McGuinness's candidacy and Fianna Fail can learn a lesson from their rival's commitment to long-term gains and unity of purpose.

After all the focus in recent weeks on the rise and fall of Fianna Fail, the party needs to learn the fall might not have ended yet and bickering will also lead it in a downward direction.

Sinn Fein's mantra of their day coming still remains relevant.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fail's Soldiers of Destiny are busy shooting themselves in the foot.

Irish Independent