Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

Irish presidential race: Don't write off Martin McGuinness: sky's the limit for this outsider

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams congratulates Martin McGuinness as he is announced as the party's candidate for the Irish Presidency
Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams arrive for a press conference at the Irish Writers Museum in Dublin

Pat Doherty, Sinn Fein's veteran strategist, is being credited with the vision to put the party into the Irish presidential election.

Three months ago, when the rest of Sinn Fein was still digesting the outcome of the 2011 General Election and Gerry Adams's move south, Doherty was already thinking of the next challenge.

The party kicked around the names of a range of candidates, among them Mary Lou McDonald, Caoimhghin O Caolain and Michelle Gildernew.

All-Ireland winning Tyrone football manager Mickey Harte's name was also mentioned to the party but never seriously considered.

But it wasn't until recent weeks that the Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister's name came up and speculation began.

Once the decision was taken, Sinn Fein handled the nomination process professionally and in marked contrast to other contenders.

Martin McGuinness's name was confirmed when the nomination was already in the bag.

The party has 17 TDs and senators, leaving it just three short of the necessary 20 Oireachtas members. Independent TDs had already been contacted during the summer to sound them out. Last week, the party signed up Finian McGrath, Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, Michael Healy-Rae and Tom Fleming.

Sinn Fein was not going to have days and weeks of pressure needing to be brought to bear on Independents to nominate or not nominate. The deal was done.

McGuinness is the best possible candidate the party could have run.

The backing of the Independents for the nomination bolsters his claim to have an appeal beyond Sinn Fein itself. Indeed, as of now, he is effectively the only non-establishment candidate.

The failure of David Norris to get into the race benefits him in this regard. McGuinness will attract the votes of Sinn Fein supporters, republicans and those who admire his work on the peace process.

His past as an IRA leader cannot be ignored and will be a turn-off for some. But he will also draw support from those looking for a protest vote. A sizeable amount of the population is opposed to the Republic's IMF-EU bailout. To give them their dues, the rest of the candidates are not in favour of this either.

But the four candidates previously in the race, Gay Mitchell of Fine Gael, Michael D Higgins of Labour and Independents Mary Davis and Sean Gallagher, are chasing the middle ground.

But the prospect of Sinn Fein winning the presidency will kick Fine Gael and Labour into action.

For McGuinness, the sky is the limit. His opponents will write off his chances at their peril.

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