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Former IRA Convict Exposes Divide With Bid for Irish Presidency

Former Irish Republican Army member Martin McGuinness
Former Irish Republican Army member Martin McGuinness. Photographer: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

Sept. 28 (Bloomberg) -- The Irish jailed Martin McGuinness for terrorism-related activities almost 40 years ago, and now he’s bidding to become their president.

Former Irish Republican Army member McGuinness, 61, is challenging Michael D. Higgins, a politician and poet who started his career when McGuinness was fighting against British rule in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, and David Norris, a senator and James Joyce scholar known for his gay rights activism. The election takes place on Oct. 27.

“People in the south don’t know a lot about McGuinness and they’d be a little scared of him,” said Dublin student David Doyle, 20. “I’m not old enough to remember the trouble in the north, but from what my parents say, I’d be wary of him.”

McGuinness’s arrival into the political fray south of the border follows Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’s election to the Irish parliament in February. While they are aiming to build support for their party during the economic turmoil across Ireland, they are exposing the divisions in the country over the three-decade-long “Troubles’’ that left 3,500 people dead.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter said McGuinness may be an inappropriate choice as president, while the candidate on Sept. 20 labeled his critics “West Brits,” a pejorative term for an Irish person viewed as sympathetic to the U.K. Northern Ireland remained part of the U.K. when Ireland won independence in 1922.

“With Sinn Fein contesting the election, the issue of dealing with the legacy of the Troubles provides a challenge,” Diarmaid Ferriter, author of “The Transformation of Ireland: 1900-2000,” said in an interview. “It has the potential to reopen a lot of old wounds and resentments, north and south.”

Tight Race

The seven-year Irish presidency’s political role is mostly limited to signing legislation and referring proposals that may be in conflict with the constitution to the Supreme Court. President Mary McAleese, also from Northern Ireland, is stepping down after completing her second term.

McGuinness lies third in the race, according to a survey for the Sunday Business Post, published on Sept. 25. He drew 16 percent support in the telephone poll of 1,010 voters taken between Sept. 19 and 21. Norris is favorite to win, on 21 percent support, followed by Higgins at 18 percent.

Sinn Fein nominated McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister since 2007, to build on its performance in February’s general election, when the party tripled its representation in the Dublin parliament.

‘Big Guns’

“They are sending the big guns down,” said Jonathan Tonge, a politics professor at the University of Liverpool, who has studied Sinn Fein. “If people are looking for a protest candidate, on that basis it is winnable. There is never going to be a better time for McGuinness to stand.”

Since the parliamentary election, Sinn Fein has led opposition to the government’s commitment to repay bank bondholders. The state is injecting about 62 billion euros ($84.5 billion) into the financial system and the government is preparing another round of spending cuts and tax increases.

Support for Sinn Fein now stands at 15 percent, the Sunday Business Post poll showed. That puts it level with Fianna Fail, which lost power in February after presiding over the worst recession in Ireland’s modern history. The self-styled party of Irish nationalism, Fianna Fail isn’t running a candidate after losing 58 of its 78 seats in the general election.


McGuinness took his current position in Belfast when Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly was revived following the IRA’s decision to disarm in 2005. He previously led Sinn Fein’s peace negotiations.

“I am obviously seen as someone who was a member of the IRA but more importantly I am seen by the vast majority of people as a peacemaker,” McGuinness said in an interview at Google Inc.’s offices in Dublin yesterday as he campaigned. “That includes people like President Obama, George Bush, President Clinton and successive British Prime Ministers.”

In 2001, McGuinness told the Bloody Sunday Tribunal, a U.K. government investigation into the killing of 13 Catholic civilians in his hometown of Derry in 1972, that he was second in command of the IRA in the city on that day.

He was jailed in the Republic of Ireland in 1973 after police found ammunition and explosives in a car in which he was traveling, according to a 2001 book by Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston, “Martin McGuinness, from Guns to Government.”

McGuinness says he left the IRA in 1974, the Irish Times reported on Sept. 20. He has also said he hadn’t killed anyone.

Outside the General Post Office in Dublin, the epicenter of the Irish uprising against British rule in 1916, some voters say McGuinness has put his past behind him.

“His past doesn’t bother me,” said John Green, 52, from Galway. “War is war and there is no good and bad in war.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Dara Doyle at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tim Quinson at

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