The nomination of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness for next month’s election to the President of Ireland has provoked a chaotic and bitter response from the 26-County ‘elite’.
Establishment figures -- from television chat-show host Gay Byrne to the Minister for Justice Alan Shatter -- have queued up to launch ad-hominem attacks on Mr McGuinness.
Confirmed by the party’s Ard Chomhairle earlier this week, and with his nomination papers now accepted, Sinn Fein’s extraordinary decision to place the Six-County Deputy First Minister before the 26-County electorate has brought an urgency and focus to the campaign.
The inevitable focus on his IRA past does not yet appear to have discouraged support for the Sinn Fein candidate, but has certainly fuelled a wealth of free publicity for his election effort.
With nominations still not closed for the election, Mr McGuinness has topped two informal radio polls. However, a more formal poll has indicated that considerable support remains for the controversial senator David Norris, while Labour’s Michael D. Higgins remains the favourite to win with the bookmakers.
Norris’s candidacy hangs in the balance amid continuing questions over his attitude to child abuse among parliamentarians and councillors, whose support he requires for the nomination. Meanwhile, former Eurovision song contest winner, ‘Dana’ Rosemary Scallon, also looks set to enter the campaign.
Following his formal nomination this week, made with the assistance of four independent TDs, Mr McGuinness spoke at a press conference. He told the gathering that he had “reflected long and hard” on his decision to allow his name to go on the ballot.
“When I first set out on my political journey on the streets of Derry forty years ago, little did I know that I would be here today in our capital city, announcing my nomination for the presidency.”
Reflecting on his political career, the candidate said it had included “the great heights of the peace process and negotiations, the achievement of political agreements and the establishment of all-Ireland and power sharing political institutions.
“And the many lows which two decades and more of violent conflict inevitably gave us, of the squandering of the wealth of the Celtic tiger and the scandal of many of our brightest and best young people being driven to every corner of the globe in search of work.”
He said he felt that the Irish people were searching for a new beginning.
“I do new beginnings,” he said, adding that he wanted to make “a contribution, make a difference to people’s lives, inspire and unite them.”
“I have never sought financial gain or privilege from my involvement in politics and I never will. I still live in the same community where I was born and raised.
“If elected President I will only draw the average wage,” he said, putting it up to the other candidates for the 300,000 euro a year post.
He said that the bulk of the salary would be donated to the Irish people. “I want to share in the pain, hurt and sacrifices of the Irish people.”
OPEN TO ALL
He referred to his relationships with DUP leader Ian Paisley and with current First Minister Peter Robinson, saying he was proud of having served with unionists such as them.
“My campaign is open to all. It will be broad-based and it will embody the great republican and democratic principles which underpin the Irish nation.
“I will be a people’s president a president for a new republic in a new time.”
He declared the Garda police and 26-County Army would have his “100 per cent” support if he is elected, and also said as President he would be willing to meet the English queen, Elizabeth Windsor.
Speaking on the campaign trail at the 80th National Ploughing Championships, Mr McGuinness said he was delighted with the public’s reaction to his candidacy.
He said a number of people from the unionist community had expressed their support as did many well-wishers in Croke Park on Sunday following the All-Ireland football final, which Mr McGuinness attended.
“I couldn’t get away from people after the match coming up to me and wishing me all the best,” he said.
And during a whistle-stop visit to Cork, Mr McGuinness was well received on a walkabout in the southern capital’s city centre.
Mr McGuinness said he was receiving “an absolutely fantastic” response from people on the street.
“It’s quite clear people are looking for leadership and are fed up with the selfishness and greed that led to the situation they are in,” he said.
“I feel a real sense of empathy with people and what they are going through at the moment.”
Speaking on Newstalk radio, he called for the vote in Irish presidential elections to be extended to Irish citizens north of the Border.
“The northern counties have as much interest in this election as anybody else even though they don’t have the vote. That is a very important campaign which I think all of the parties here in the south need to consider in the context of the next presidential election after this one,” he said.
Mr McGuinness also controversially challenged what he said were ‘west Brit’ elements of the media.
“There are west Brit elements in Dublin, some of them are attached to some sections of the media, others are attached to political parties and were formerly attached to political parties, and I say to all of them: I go forward on my record, and my record as a peacemaker, I think, is unequalled,” he said.
Mr McGuinness later said his “west Brit” comments were “off the cuff”, but the comment added fuel to a fiery reaction from Ireland’s power-brokers.
Veteran broadcaster Gay Byrne, and one-time Presidential candidate, said: “I’ve always been a hater of Sinn Fein and a hater of the Provisional IRA and everything they stood for -- and they don’t like me either.
“I’ve interviewed Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams and they are so well disciplined and so well honed that no interviewer gets anywhere with them.
“You get nowhere with them because they lie.
“They lie all the time. They don’t mind lying and they’ve rehearsed their lies and they’ve been trained to lie, and that’s what they’re doing.”
Mr Byrne finished up the interview on the TV3 channel by claiming that “like so many other Irish people”, he had lost interest in the presidential election.
* Fine Gael has admitted trying to manipulate a presidential election poll, which the party’s candidate Gay Mitchell had originally claimed was doctored by Sinn Fein.
Mr Mitchell only came third in the text poll on RTE’s ‘Liveline’ with Joe Duffy, which was won by Martin McGuinness.
The Fine Gael MEP subsequently dismissed the results, claiming Sinn Fein manipulated the text poll. But the party later confirmed a text calling for votes was sent to TDs, senators, MEPs, constituency offices as well as a mailing list.
* Mr McGuinness has stepped down as the North’s Deputy First Minister for the duration of the campaign. He has beeb replaced in the post for the duration of the campaign by the party’s Minister for Education John O’Dowd.
Nominations close on September 27th, with the election set to take place on October 27th.