Belfast Telegraph

Hand of history won't knock chip from Martin's shoulder

As deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is statesmanlike but as a presidential candidate he's a snake-oil salesman, says Liam Fay

A bunker is a difficult vantage point from which to mount an assault on the sunny uplands.

However, this is the challenge facing Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness in the Irish presidential election as he attempts to sell his trademark Northern Irish defensiveness and insularity as the stuff of inspirational leadership for the inhabitants of the south.

Vision is what the Irish public wants from its aspirant heads of state, but all Martin McGuinness has to offer the electorate is tunnel vision.

Amid the baggage that the Sinn Feiner carries into this election campaign, his bloodstained past as an IRA kingpin may not prove to be the decisive back-breaker that many commentators are predicting.

The importance of McGuinness's role as a peacemaker is well understood in the Republic, but so, too, is his no-less-tireless work as a violence-maker. In stark contrast to Gerry Adams, whose denials of IRA membership have long possessed the status of a silly catchphrase in a dated sitcom, Martin McGuinness is given credit for not insulting people's intelligence. We know full well who he is and only his most blinkered cheerleaders need reminding of where he has come from.

Much more potentially damaging to Martin McGuinness's presidential campaign is the speed with which his move into southern Irish politics has exposed him as a stranger in a strange land.

The outbursts that characterised his first week of canvassing - the 'West Brits' rant, the self-pitying pleas of victimhood - were rife with rhetorical mainstays of northern political discourse that sound incongruously foreign to most residents of the Republic.

Ironically, for a politician who insists that the Free State and the north are seamless components of a single nation, Martin McGuinness's presidential candidacy seems destined to highlight the enormous cultural gulf that exists in the guise of the border.

Already, in attempting to make the leap across this chasm, Martin McGuinness has lost much of the lustre he had attained in the eyes of many southerners.

As the north's deputy First Minister, McGuinness was an outstanding statesman with the hand of history on his shoulder; on the hustings in the south, however, he comes across like a snake-oil salesman with a chip on his shoulder.

In spite of their nominal espousal of national unity, Sinn Fein has always been more comfortable with a policy of divide and conquer.

In every previous election it has fought in the south, the party has sought to curry favour with one section of society (the unemployed, low-paid public sector workers) by demonising another (the upper middle-class, private sector workers). However, a presidential election requires a very different approach. For the first time, Sinn Fein is seeking a mass endorsement and McGuinness will consequently need to make a pitch that appeals across classes, age groups and degrees of nationalist fervour.

This doesn't mean that he has to be bland, or mealy-mouthed, but, if he is to offer himself as a possible president for all the people of the Republic, he will have to find a way of addressing his natural constituency without alienating everyone else.

Rightly or wrongly, the president of Ireland is expected to embody contemporary Irishness in some conspicuous regard. Much guff has been, and will be, expelled over what precisely this means, but the minimum requirement is that he/she is at ease with the realities, necessities and, indeed, contradictions of modern Irish life.

Martin McGuinness's military days may be behind him, but standing at ease in the Republic is not a command he is yet ready to follow.

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