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'West Brits' slur shows IRA man stuck in the past

MARTIN McGuinness hit the ground running. Then he fell at the first fence. At speed and face down into the mud of the Ploughing Championships.

"There are West Brit elements in Dublin, some of them attached to some sections of media, others are attached to media," he said, adding that some of these "elements" would try to muddy his waters.

You have to hand it to him. When he puts his foot in his mouth, he puts it in to the full length of his welly.

He broke Rule #1 of political communications: Never attack media. Never go to war with someone who buys ink by the barrel, or airtime by the hour.

He broke Rule #2 as well: Don't ever talk of 'elements' rather than getting specific. It makes you look, not just paranoid, but impotently paranoid. Then he went even further, crashing into a basic rule of civilised public communication: Don't get racist. For any politician to use the phrase "West Brit" would have been unfortunate. For someone with McGuinness, with his IRA background, to use it was disastrous.

Every other candidate in the Aras race must have clapped their little hands together in a prayerful pose and looked heavenwards in gratitude. Because every other candidate and party in the Aras race was scared of Sinn Fein's formidable propaganda machine.

The great timing and military discipline of it. The relentless insistence on saying the same thing again and again to brainwash the public into repeating the slogans and themes. The refusal ever to recognise a debating setback. Mary Lou McDonald exemplifies that approach to communications in every outing. She's never seduced by the desire to be liked. She never slips.

And then out comes the Sinn Fein presidential candidate and loses his footing in the first few days. What's amazing about it is that it was an unforced error.


He'd been greeted by the majority of media as a Godsend, as the factor that might lift this campaign out of ridiculous procedural morass where candidates distinguished by their lack of electoral possibility and their matching lack of insight have been fighting with their own political parties or running around to county councils.

County councillors must, at this point, be bored stupid listening to people all claiming the safely obvious.

McGuinness entering the race brought a new set of cliches (think 'whiff of cordite') and an expectation of more exciting debate. He was hardly out of the traps when he came out with that wizard wheeze of promising to work for the industrial wage.

You could hear the indrawn breaths from the other candidates as they pondered if it would be wise to say "Easy for you to work for half nothing when you're sitting on the proceeds of a decade of bank robberies". None of them went for it.

That's not to say there wasn't grinding of teeth among the existing candidates and would-be candidates as commentary on his arrival seemed to suggest that the campaign was now interesting and hadn't been up to now.

For the first day, it looked as if the SF message would be swallowed, hook, line and slogan. He was defined as a peacemaker, as a direct descendent of Mary McAleese when it came to bridge-building, as a successor to men like Eamon de Valera. Those three points would build a peace wall between him and his history.

Sinn Fein don't seem to have registered one crucial fact. If David Norris could be crippled by a 15-year-old letter seeking clemency for someone he loved, it was inevitable that McGuinness would be forced to answer questions on his much more problematic past.