Belfast Telegraph

Is this man big enough to fill Martin's boots?

Martin McGuinness' election as Irish president would leave Sinn Fein in the hands of B-listers north of the border, says Henry McDonald

George Orwell once acidly remarked: "Revolutionaries are just social climbers with bombs in their pockets." Although the prophet who warned against the dangers and temptations of totalitarianism in all its forms died two decades before the Troubles exploded, Orwell's observation could easily apply to the career of Martin McGuinness.

From a butcher's apprentice in the Bogside to the door of Aras an Uachtarain, with 1,800 IRA victims and a peace process in between, the trajectory of his journey has been fascinating.

Although a brazen gamble on Sinn Fein's part, McGuinness's entry into the presidential race is a win-win for the party: even if he doesn't succeed fellow northern Catholic Mary McAleese into Phoenix Park, McGuinness will undoubtedly raise Sinn Fein's share of the national vote and increase the party's profile across the Republic.

But what if he did win in what happens to be one of the most open presidential contests in the Republic's history?

McGuinness is already facing questions over his past and how, as a former IRA member dedicated not only to destroying Northern Ireland, but also overthrowing the Irish state in the south, can he become the chief of the Irish Defence Forces and the Garda Siochana?

Will he, for example, retrospectively condemn the actions of the Provisional IRA, particularly when they led to the deaths or injury of serving gardai and Irish soldiers?

To do so would overturn one of the important projects the McGuinness-Adams leadership has tried to protect during the peace process - the legacy of the IRA campaign.

Although the Provisionals did not achieve their united Ireland objective, the Sinn Fein leadership has tried to continually justify the 'armed struggle' gone by.

This has been done either by re-writing history; that is by pretending the violence was somehow simply a natural response to the suppression of the civil rights movement, as well as a means to win Catholic/nationalist equality; or by establishing a vast commemorative culture around its 'martyrs'.

Yet if McGuinness is forced into a corner during the month-long campaign ahead and accepts that what the IRA did during the Troubles was wrong, then it threatens the legitimacy of the campaign to justify 25 years of murder and mayhem.

Suddenly, for the likes of the SDLP, if they wake up and smell the cordite, the battle of history is back on.

On another level, the prospect of President McGuinness brings about new and interesting challenges for those left behind north of the border in his party.

At the time of writing, the order papers have been signed to elevate John O'Dowd to the post of temporary deputy First Minister. The north Armagh republican will stay in that position if McGuinness makes it to Phoenix Park.

A victory in next month's poll would mean that the two key people who guided the republican movement out of the 'armed struggle' cul de sac now operate across the border.

There is no doubt that internally Adams and McGuinness will still hold the centre of power in Sinn Fein. However, in the day-to-day rough-and-tumble of northern politics, they will have left the field to others.

Aside from O'Dowd, there only appears to be a handful of Sinn Fein Assembly members who are household names in the north.

There is the ever-amusing and entertaining Barry McElduff from Tyrone and Conor Murphy still comes across as an authoritative figure in his ministry, in spite of last winter's water debacle.

On the other hand, Caral Ni Chuilin at Culture and Sport started her portfolio on a discordant note after appointing as special adviser Mary McArdle, one of the gang that shot dead 23-year-old Mary Travers in 1984. The second tier of Sinn Fein representatives breaking through appears more gaffe-prone and less-controlled than the 'premiership' players who drove the party forward in the 1990s.

Of course, Sinn Fein will continue to dominate its heartlands and harvest votes from many years of hard donkey-work for their constituents. In that, they maintain an important advantage over the SDLP.

Moreover, they have faced absolutely no electoral threat from the more politically-minded republicans critical of the party's current stance.

Another reason for putting Martin McGuinness forward is that it allows Sinn Fein to portray itself as the genuine all-Ireland party.

So, in spite of the reality of economic fusion and the continued insistence of unionists to remain unionists, this presidential campaign enables Sinn Fein to portray an all-Ireland entity that is at least apparent, if not real. Given the lure of all-Ireland attraction, perhaps that should give the nod to the SDLP to do the same.

The party should learn from Sinn Fein and acknowledge that sometimes it is worth gambling. If the SDLP were, for instance, to elect Dublin-born Conall McDevitt as its leader this autumn, they too could point up the all-Ireland nature of their party.

If a Derryman can possibly be president of Ireland, then why can a Dubliner not lead a party at the Assembly?

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