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Maurice Hayes: SF decision puts at risk all its good work in North

WHAT is it, many will ask, that impels an able and intelligent man who is doing a good job in an important executive position, to enter a hazardous race for a non-job which he is unlikely to get and which is devoid of power and authority?

Martin McGuinness has been one of the success stories of the unfolding political developments in Northern Ireland. In forging good working relations, first with Ian Paisley and then with Peter Robinson, he has contributed more than most to the stability of the administration and to breaking down barriers between the communities. He has shown a commendable ability to appreciate the concerns of his political opponents, and the need to accommodate these in the language of political discourse and in practical policy initiatives.

He has grown in office, and in his conduct as deputy first minister, has scarcely put a foot wrong. Why should he give it all up -- especially since the building of public confidence in the North in the political process is still a work in progress? The structures are there in embryo, but it is still far from being a fully functioning political system. There is much work to be done in building confidence, on reaching compromise, not only on the way forward, but crucially on how to deal with the past. There is a particularly testing time ahead as a nascent regional administration, which does not have taxing powers, and which is inordinately dependent on the public sector, is about to experience recession and swingeing cuts in public expenditure in common with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Scarcely the time, one would think, for the joint-captain to abandon ship -- and for what?

It is not to diminish the office of president to argue that the prime imperative in Irish politics for four decades at least has been the achievement of peace in the North. Until that is fully embedded, with structures and a political culture that attract public support and are robust enough to withstand even violent challenge, it should remain a priority. The national interest is better served in getting the North right than in filling a mainly ceremonial office.

In what is clearly an audacious bid by Sinn Fein to raise their electoral profile and to wrong-foot the other parties (which they have certainly done), in choosing McGuinness the party is putting at risk much of what they have achieved in the North.

There may not be constitutional problems in a senior office holder in one jurisdiction running for office in another, but it is certainly an anomaly which endangers relationships between individuals and parties which have been painfully built up.

Neither can it be argued that the policy carries no risk for Sinn Fein, that it is, in the popular jargon, a win-win situation. On this thesis, McGuinness can breeze in, raise the profile, on a good day perhaps even win, but if not, return unscathed to pick up the baton where he left it.

The trouble is that he will not return unscathed. He may well be damaged goods -- at best badly scarred in a bloody battle. A presidential election is neither a lap of honour nor a walk in the park -- much less a stroll to the Park. Recent elections have become quite dirty, and this one already is no exception. Against a street fighter like Gay Mitchell, invigorated by an opponent he can get his teeth into, McGuinness will find his past interrogated as never before in public -- no grave left undug, no cupboard left unopened which might contain a skeleton. The things that are said, and the things he will say to defend himself will rake over the past at a time when the fragile polity in the North is trying to put the past behind it.

Crucially it may all make it impossible for some unionists to contemplate Martin McGuinness as a partner in government, and put great pressure on other unionists who are willing still to do so.

The cynic might ask why Sinn Fein did not run Gerry Adams, the party president, who already has a base in southern politics, and who does not, at least by his own account, carry the extra weight of past IRA membership, and who would not (win or lose) destabilise politics in Northern Ireland.

The Sinn Fein initiative already projects them on to the higher ground, at the expense of both Fianna Fail and SDLP, both of whom are experiencing leadership problems. It is hardly credible that Fianna Fail can produce a candidate more likely to attract republican-leaning voters away from McGuinness, and equally incredible that they should be unable to do so.

No doubt Sinn Fein see this as an opportunity to establish themselves as the only all-Ireland party -- which is fine as far as it goes. The sober truth is that electors show little interest at present in all-Ireland politics. A marked effect of recession and economic and fiscal crisis has been to drive people, North and South, into their fox-holes in the hope of mere survival.

Fourteen years ago, John Hume could have been an agreed candidate for the presidency. He refused on the grounds that there was still work to do in the North. Many will regret that Martin McGuinness did not take the same stance.

Irish Independent