Sinn Fein nominee Martin McGuinness was repeatedly questioned about his past involvement with the IRA this week, with the issue dominating the early days of the presidential campaign.
“I’ve never hidden my involvement in the IRA,” he responded.
“Both the British army and the RUC murdered people in my city before the IRA fired a shot, and I was part of a young generation that decided to stand against them in the Bogside, in Free Derry, and we did stand against them and I make no apologies for that.
“But I do think that when people examine my life and my role in Irish politics they need to examine it in the round.
“I’ve been to Iraq, I’ve been to Baghdad, I’ve been to Sri Lanka, I’ve been to the Basque country. I wouldn’t be asked to go to these places if people didn’t think I was an absolutely genuine peace maker who has a contribution to make to outlining our vision of how we go forward in Ireland.”
The Sinn Fein candidate added: “If people want to examine the past, then let’s examine the past of everybody [in the race for the presidency]. I’m not going to get into recriminating about the past.”
Responding to questions in Cork later on his IRA past, Mr McGuinness said he was only a member from 1970 until 1974, and had not killed anyone.
The political veteran said he had first fought an election in 1982. He warned that going “down the road” of answering questions about his past would be “a huge mistake”, because resulting headlines might claim he was “boasting”.
“I didn’t say I never fired a gun - I was in the IRA. There were battles on the streets of Derry. I’ve never run away from that.”
“No, I was never indirectly responsible for somebody being killed.
“But I’m not going to sensationalize in interviews with something that could then be used to the detriment of the peace process and to the detriment of my colleagues within government.
“I have made my peace with unionist leaders. And I do think some people in the media down here, some elements need to think about peacemaking and how they make their peace with me.”
He said there was a “small minority” in the 26-County media who were “fixated” on his history and “totally hostile to what I represent”.
He accused his detractors of failing to “cross the Rubicon of peace making”.
Mr McGuinness said he had striven to make peace with the North’s unionist leaders and was now working with them “positively and constructively”, and forging similar relationships with leaders in Dublin.
“This election is about leadership. It is about a new Ireland. It is about representing Ireland on the world stage,” he said, appealing to “everybody, no matter how they voted in the past to rally to my banner”.
This weekend, Fine Gael launched a salvo of attacks on Mr McGuinness, questioning his suitability for the office.
Fine Gael presidential candidate Gay Mitchell and Minister for Defence Alan Shatter both said yesterday that Mr McGuinness would not be an appropriate person to be titular head of the 26-County Defence Forces.
Mr Mitchell said had “spent his whole life” defending the State and was not about to surrender it to people who would change it from the inside. He claimed said Mr McGuinness had opposed “the very existence” of the 26-County State and yet was seeking an office that involved being commander-in-chief.
Similarly Mr Shatter said Mr McGuinness was an “inappropriate” person to become president of Ireland.
He said the former IRA leader could not credibly present himself as a force for reconciliation throughout Ireland as Mr McGuinness had not attended the State dinner in Dublin Castle for Elizabeth Windsor. This pointed to an insufficient level of reconciliation by Sinn Fein, he said.
“I thought it would have been a very valuable gesture along the further road of reconciliation that we would have the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland present at that dinner,” he said.
Sinn Fein’s deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald hit back at Mr Shatter, warning that it was not for him or Fine Gael to decide who is fit for the presidency. She said the election will be decided by the people.
“I find it completely wrong that a government minister would interfere in the democratic process in such a manner,” she said.
“It is the people who will decide who is fit for the office of president and not Alan Shatter or the Fine Gael party.
“Martin McGuinness is a very strong candidate and this is evidenced by the reactions of people like Alan Shatter.”
Earlier this week, former justice minister Michael McDowell also made a surprise return to Irish politics this week to denounce the Sinn Fein candidate on the state-run RTE television.
On RTE’s Frontline programme on Monday, he repeated allegations that Mr McGuinness had been a high-ranking IRA figure.
Donegal Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty described McDowell as “the nemesis of Sinn Fein”. He said the ex-politician had been “forced out of retirement” to “launch an attack” against Mr McGuinness.
“We expect that from Michael McDowell. He’s a failed politician. He’s tried to undermine Sinn Fein for many many years.”
Mr Doherty said the Sinn Fein candidate had been referring particularly to Mr McDowell when he made his “West Brit” comment, but added there had “always been sections in the media” who had dismissed Sinn Fein policy as republican propaganda.
McDowell’s intervention also provoked condemnation from Sinn Fein’s Culture Minister in the North, Caral ni Chuilin, who described him as “a gobshite”. She later said she regretted the remark, and vowed to be “more ministerial” in her comments.
Meanwhile, some prominent republicans have also questioned Mr McGuinness’s statements in regard to his IRA past.
Former IRA prisoner Gerard Hodgins said he was not convinced by the claim he quit the IRA in 1974.
“Everyone knows that is not true,” he said.
“The British government negotiated throughout the years with him as did the Irish government.
“They negotiated with him because he was a leader. Who else was leading (the IRA)?
“He was chief of staff and OC [officer commanding] northern command at various times throughout the years.
“I don’t know why they play this game.”
Anthony McIntyre, who served 18 years in jail for his part in the armed struggle, said there might be a strategic reason why Mr McGuinness’s claim. He pointed out that the Sunningdale Agreement (similar in many respects to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement) was reached in that year.
Mr McIntyre said: “At least you can argue that up to ‘74 there was a reason for fighting. He could argue he was working for peace after that date.”
A spokesman for Sinn Fein said Mr Hodgins and Mr McIntyre were known opponents of the party.
“Both Anthony McIntyre and Gerard Hodgins are well-known for their anti-Sinn Fein/peace process views and they would take any opportunity to try and damage Sinn Fein along with opponents of republicanism throughout Ireland,” he said.
“They have zero credibility when it comes to commenting on Sinn Fein.”
Asked whether he could understand why people might have difficulty believing his assertion that he left the IRA in 1974, Mr McGuinness said: “I went to prison on two occasions for membership of the IRA, in 1973 and 1974, on the word of a Garda superintendent.
“I was never, ever charged with membership of the IRA after that, except on one occasion in 1976 when I was brought to Castlereagh interrogation centre in Belfast and they threw down a sheaf of newspapers in front of me, and that was their evidence . . . and the case collapsed within a few days.”