Martin McGuinness: From Provo to President?
The ex-IRA commander's bid to become head of state underlines Republicanism's rise as a political force
Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's candidate for the presidency of Ireland, has come a long, long way since his role was to assure IRA hardliners that the organisation would never give up its arms and abandon its "armed struggle".
In the early days of the peace process, his task was to reassure militant doubters suspicious that Gerry Adams and other republican "doves" might be going too far, too fast in redrawing republican orthodoxy.
"Our position is clear and it will never, never, never change," he insisted with characteristic bluntness at a Sinn Fein conference in 1986. "The war against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved."
However, today the IRA has put its weapons beyond use and has left the stage. Mr McGuinness pursues his aim of Irish unity by purely political means, saying yesterday that, if elected to succeed Mary McAleese, he would be prepared to meet the Queen.
Governments in London, Dublin and Washington have no illusions about his career as a top IRA leader, during which he must have approved of hundreds of shootings and bombings. Unionists know this, too, yet with their votes they have endorsed the partnership government he heads along with their political representatives.
His journey from guerrilla leader to presidential candidate has been long and tortuous, and many people have died along the way. He joined the IRA in his home city of Londonderry long before paratroopers killed 13 people there on Bloody Sunday in 1972. Even as a young man he was an important IRA figure, one of a group who later that year held an ultra-secret meeting with a cabinet minister in Chelsea.
Within a few years, the security forces had settled down to combat what the IRA called "the long war" This was based on the proposition that continuing violence would force a British rethink leading to a withdrawal from Northern Ireland.
However, it was the Adams-McGuinness leadership which undertook a rethink, concluding that a withdrawal was not on the cards. They gradually developed the alternative idea that republicans should switch to politics.
One of the surprises about this process was that Mr McGuinness showed himself to be as formidable as a politician as he had been an IRA commander. He became Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, he and Mr Adams spending many hours closeted with Tony Blair. He went on to take office in the Belfast administration, drawing horrified Unionist gasps as he became education minister. But, even though he himself left school in his teens, he showed conspicuous ability as an administrator.
A further surprise came when he displayed a personal charm which won over many former opponents – most famously the Rev Ian Paisley, who became quite attached to him.
Mr McGuinness reached an important milestone two years ago when, in an electrifying moment, he denounced violent republican splinter groups as "traitors". Another milestone came when he and Sinn Fein urged nationalists to join the police. His goal of Irish unity is still there, but the guns have gone.
Some republican dissidents are disgruntled about this, but they are far outnumbered by those who support the new pragmatism. This can be seen in the increasing vote for Sinn Fein. It is not far off becoming the largest party in Northern Ireland, where it is now the dominant nationalist force.
South of the border it has made smaller gains, but this year became the fourth largest party.
The McGuinness bid will raise its profile even further. Few predict that he might win, but a respectable showing will represent yet another step in his long journey towards political power.