Belfast Telegraph

Presidential gamble is a risky one for McGuinness

Martin McGuinness' run for the Irish presidency puts at risk his party's achievements in the Assembly, says Maurice Hayes

What is it that impels an able and intelligent man who is doing a good job in an important executive position to enter a hazardous race for a non-job which he is unlikely to get?

Martin McGuinness has been one of the success stories of the unfolding political developments in Northern Ireland. In forging good working relations, first with Ian Paisley and then with Peter Robinson, he has contributed more than most to the stability of the administration.

He has shown a commendable ability to appreciate the concerns of his political opponents and the need to accommodate these in the language of political discourse.

He has grown in office and, in his conduct as deputy First Minister, has scarcely put a foot wrong. Why should he give it all up?

The structures are there in embryo, but it is still far from being a fully functioning political system.

There is much work to be done in building confidence, not only on the way forward, but on how to deal with the past. Scarcely the time, one would think, for the joint-captain to abandon ship.

It is clearly an audacious bid by Sinn Fein to raise their electoral profile and to wrong-foot the other parties. But in choosing McGuinness, the party is putting at risk much of what they have achieved in the north.

There may not be constitutional problems in a senior office-holder in one jurisdiction running for office in another, but it is certainly an anomaly which endangers relationships between individuals and parties which have been painfully built.

Neither can it be argued that the policy carries no risk for Sinn Fein; that it is, in the popular jargon, a win-win situation. On this thesis, McGuinness can breeze in, raise the profile, on a good day perhaps win, but if not, return unscathed to pick up the baton where he left it. The trouble is that he will not return unscathed. He may well be damaged goods. A presidential election is neither a lap of honour nor a walk in the park. Recent elections in the Republic have become quite dirty and this one is no exception. Against a street-fighter like Gay Mitchell, McGuinness will find his past interrogated as never before.

The things that are said, and the things he will say to defend himself, will rake over the past at a time when the fragile polity in the north is trying to put the past behind it.

Crucially, it may all make it impossible for some unionists to contemplate Martin McGuinness as a partner in government and put great pressure on other unionists who are willing still to do so. The cynic might ask why Sinn Fein did not run Gerry Adams, who already has a base in southern politics and who does not - at least by his own account - carry the extra weight of past IRA membership.

The Sinn Fein initiative already projects them on to the higher ground at the expense of both Fianna Fail and SDLP, both of which are experiencing leadership problems.

It is hardly credible that Fianna Fail can produce a candidate more likely to attract republican-leaning voters away from McGuinness - and equally incredible that they should be unable to do so.

No doubt Sinn Fein sees this as an opportunity to establish itself as the only all-Ireland party. The truth is that electors in the Republic at present show little interest in all-Ireland politics.

A marked effect of recession has been to drive people into their fox-holes in the hope of mere survival.

Fourteen years ago, John Hume could have been an agreed candidate for the Irish presidency. He refused on the grounds that there was still work to do in the north.

Many will regret Martin McGuinness did not take the same stance.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph