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Sinn Fein on the brink of new era of openness


Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness

Win or lose, Martin McGuinness's Irish presidential bid has brought Sinn Fein to a place it has never been before. He has shown leadership, taken risks and set precedents which will echo for a long time.

This week, he published his bank accounts to prove that he was only receiving £370 a week from his work as an MP and deputy First Minister. The rest is retained in Sinn Fein funds.

He did so to beat off accusations from Gay Mitchell, his Fine Gael opponent, who claimed he had grown rich on the Queen's shilling up north.

We now know that McGuinness's wife, Bernie, generally shops in Asda, but sometimes favours Tesco.

And is the deputy First Minister a bit of a handyman? There are two purchases at B-amp;Q.

That has set a standard of transparency which future presidential candidates will be urged to match.

And could it spread north? "I wonder if Robbo will follow suit and publish his next?" one Sinn Fein worker quipped.

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McGuinness probably felt he had to be transparent on something, given the relentless pressure from the southern media to come clean about his IRA membership.

No one believes that, as he claimed once more on the TV3 debate on Tuesday night, he left the organisation in 1974.

However, now that he has said it, he has to stick with the line, because admitting membership after that date would lay him open to prosecution.

He hadn't counted on that pressure. A DUP insider said: "Martin was counting on a Mother Teresa effect, because of his involvement in the peace process. Instead, he is being asked what he knew about people being strapped to bombs."

McGuinness has done his best to present a moderate image and distance himself from the worst of the IRA's actions.

A first move was to say that, as president, he would be willing to meet the Queen and had heard that Prince Charles would like to meet him.

The consequence of that is that, from now on, Sinn Fein can't refuse on principle to meet members of the Royal family; if it was right in one circumstance, it can't be wrong in the other.

Perhaps the biggest concession of all was his statement that some Provisional IRA attacks were murder, if innocent people were involved. After that McGuinness will have difficulty drawing the line.

For instance, what about the IRA's 1976 attack on the Shankill Road's Bayardo Bar in which three men and two women were killed and 60 injured?

That was carried out by Brendan "Bik" McFarlane, who led the Maze protest against criminalisation on the basis that Provisional IRA attacks were politically motivated.

Yet if killing innocent people is murder, wouldn't that make Mr McFarlane a murderer?

McGuinness's reputation may well be enhanced by this presidential election, but his own background makes it difficult to deal with such questions.

But it may take a new generation of republican leadership - one which can be entirely open about the past - to finally put Sinn Fein's IRA legacy to bed.