The Irish Election: From Paramilitary to Presidential Nominee

Martin McGuiness, now running for the presidency in the Republic of Ireland, is a self-touted former IRA member. Most recently he stated in a debate that “I was in the IRA. I joined the IRA as a result of a conflict that broke out on the streets of Derry when I was 18 years of age.” McGuinness has even admitted on numerous occasions that he was a leading member of the IRA Army Council in Derry from 1970 until 1974, having been arrested on two separate occasions for membership in the organization. After being released from jail for the second time, McGuiness left the IRA to take on a more active role as a politician in Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA. Since that time McGuinness has played a crucial role in the various Irish peace accords, eventually helping to implement the Good Friday Agreement, and later forge the power sharing government that has come to govern in the North. Since 2007, McGuinness has been the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

The position of presidency in the Republic of Ireland is largely ceremonial, as most power resides with the Taoiseach or prime minister. That a self-proclaimed ex-member of the IRA could secure a nomination in the Oireachtas, the Irish Parliament, however, is an important sign of how far Ireland has transformed itself. In the most recent polls McGuinness has claimed 20 percent of the vote, on par with former frontrunner Sean Gallagher who is running as an independent. Only Michael Higgins of Labour has garnered more support than these two in the most recent poll, claiming around 38 percent of the vote. This unpredicted turn of events, and rather impressive numbers in support of an individual who has never run for an elected position in the South, demonstrates the full embrace of democracy by the Irish people, and by an individual once vehemently committed to an armed struggle.

McGuinness has faced his fare share of scrutiny in the run up to the election. He has on numerous occasions been forced to account for his membership in the IRA, most notably in a recent prime time debate on RTE. McGunniess has also at times been confronted by the relatives of those killed during the troubles, often in rather public settings. However save for rival nominee Gay Mitchell who has been outspoken in his criticism of McGuiness’ IRA past, other candidates have said they respect the democratic process and the nomination of McGuinness by the Oireachtas to run for president.

McGuinness has largely been running on a personality platform, appealing to voters as “the Peoples President.” However, McGuinness has also been quick to playon the palpable anger of the Irish people over the government’s handling of the economy and the more general resentment of corporate greed. He has emphasized the ant-establishment nature of Sinn Fein as well as his position as an outsider in Dublin politics. Although the president of Ireland would have little power to implement governmental changes, McGuinness has said he would support the establishment of a new commission to look into job creation, noting the amount of U.S. investment the North was able to attract over the past years.

Although McGuiness remains a firm supporter of the eventual reunification of Ireland, there is little evidence to suggest that his election would culminate in little more than a “triumph for the politics of ’united Irelandism’ in a symbolic sense.” The recent Eurozone crisis, which helped reinforce the UK’s commitment to the pound, has helped to maintain an economic wall between the North and the Republic, creating a large obstacle for any unification plans. McGuinness has also pledged to achieve unification through strictly democratic means, indicating that the Unionist population in the North would have to support any moves towards unification. The symbolic high point of a McGuinness presidency would be his presence as the head of state during the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, which led to the eventual formation of the Republic.

McGuiness has worked hard to assuage doubts that he would be a divise presence as president. He has noted that he would have no qualms over hosting the Queen of England, who visited the Republic of Ireland last year and was met by a boycott by the Sinn Fein delegation in the South. McGuinness has also been keen to highlight his political career in the North. As he stated in a recent debate, “I have unified people along with Ian Paisly and Peter Robinson in favor of peace, against violence…” If anything it is that commitment for unity, and reconciliation that we should all try and reciprocate.

McGuinness is still a resident of the North. So, unlike most candidates around the world, he will be unable to vote for himself in the election that will be held on October 27.