From paramilitary to president?

Published in the Daily Mail (October 24th, 2011)

As the hotel ballroom filled up and the mood of excitement grew, a three-piece band played traditional Irish music. A large screen showed footage of the star of the show in his various roles as family man, peacemaker and international statesman.

He entered the room to raucous rock music, shaking hands with cheering and whooping supporters as he made his way slowly to the stage. One  elderly woman in a red dress standing on her chair nearly fell over, such was her determination to reach the hand of her hero.

There were songs, then speeches to introduce the great man from local notables and national sports stars. An economist quoted Martin Luther King, then compared their idol with Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president who dragged the U.S. out of depression in the Thirties. ‘Roosevelt was a visionary, and I have no doubt Martin McGuinness will be a visionary too,’ he thundered. ‘This is more than a campaign, this is a call to arms.’

Next came video endorsements for the man hailed as ‘Ireland’s next President’. Fionnula Flanagan, the Emmy-winning actress, proclaimed McGuinness ‘a  brilliant man who had proven himself in the trenches,’ going on to gush: ‘He’s so highly regarded here in the U.S..’

A doddery U.S. businessmen said he was ‘the type of man American  businessmen admire’ — except, one presumes, when blowing up their assets in earlier days. And a waffling white South African communist made the first of what were to be many  nauseous comparisons of the one-time paramilitary with Nelson Mandela.

Welcome to the Martin McGuinness Roadshow, which I caught in Cork on his quest to proceed from paramilitary to president. The curly-haired former IRA commander is seeking a unique triple crown since his transformation into a politician: Member of Parliament in London, Deputy First Minister in Belfast and now the ultimate prize as head of state in Dublin.

McGuinness planned to sweep down from Derry into Aras an Uachtarain — the President’s official Dublin residence — by presenting himself as the anti-establishment saviour of a nation brought to its knees by possibly the world’s most incompetent bankers, even at a time of such fierce competition for the title.

As a northerner, he cannot vote for himself in Thursday’s election. But he was speaking up for the voiceless, he said, all those ordinary Irish men and women whose futures were sold down the river by a cosy cabal of venal politicians and greedy businessmen. 

Things are not going to plan, however. Despite the impressive Sinn Fein machine, so much slicker than its amateurish rivals, he has been buffeted by an unexpected backlash from a nation that believes McGuinness must confess past misdeeds and questions if he is fit to serve as commander-in-chief of its armed forces.

He has been savaged in the media, confronted on the campaign trail by families of victims of IRA death squads and even, to his obvious fury, asked in one electrifying moment in a TV debate how he squared his Catholic faith with involvement ‘in the murders of so many people’. 

Not that he answered the question. He told his questioner it was a disgraceful comment, storming into her dressing room to confront her afterwards, then using the incident to help portray himself as the man who threatens the Dublin establishment.

The former butcher’s boy, thought by security services to have been linked to some of the worst IRA atrocities, was in more sympathetic territory in the historic republican heartland of Cork for the rally in front of 500 fervent supporters. 

In his folksy style, he told a sweetened version of his life story: of his mother who had to carry an identity card, of his quiet father joining protests ‘beaten off the streets’ by police, of the friend who introduced him to his wife being shot dead by the British. ‘And they wondered why I joined the IRA,’ he said to rapturous applause.

‘I could have decided not to join the IRA. I could have sat in my house and ignored what was going on in my streets. But I would have been ashamed not to have joined the IRA. I absolutely believe we were right to do it.’

So it went on, a saccharine tale of a civil rights hero standing up to British torturers and thugs in uniform. Three times he repeated his catchphrase ‘and they wondered why I joined the IRA’, the cheers louder each time. He even won laughs with a jibe at his presidential rival Dana Scallon, the former Eurovision singer who hails from his hometown, for not joining the terror gang.

Then it was fast-forward to his time as a peacemaker, with anecdotes about his friend Nelson Mandela and of dropping in to Downing Street to outline the successful peace-process strategy to Tony Blair, before concluding with a fierce attack on the fat cats who betrayed the good people of Ireland.

No mention, of course, of how the IRA under his command blew apart innocent children, maimed members of its own community and needed peace talks only because it was stuck in a sewer of its own making. 

But he is as formidable a political operator as he was a terror chieftain. Pledges to draw the average wage rather than the £220,000 official salary and to open the President’s home to the homeless on Christmas Day play well in a land that has suffered the worst level of job losses in Europe — the unemployment rate stands at 14.5 per cent — and where living standards have fallen by one-fifth in three years.

After the speech, he was mobbed by fans wanting their photos taken with him. In best showbiz tradition, the 61-year-old grandfather with such steely blue eyes and a steel-grey suit chatted, posed for pictures and signed autographs late into the evening.

Inside the hall were many Sinn Fein hardliners, who happily told me they thought it had been legitimate to murder British soldiers ‘occupying’ Ulster. ‘Where I drew the line was when the IRA started bombing London — I have more relatives there then in this country,’ said one council worker with astonishing hypocrisy.

But there were also curious new recruits, such as Colin Higgins, 45, a thoughtful builder and developer who employed ten people at the height of the boom. Half have since emigrated to Australia — like so many other young Irish — and he is sitting on manageable debts of close to half-a-million euros, which leaves him in a better situation than many since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.

‘There was such greed,’ he said. ‘Ireland changed. People stopped waving in the streets, the spirit of community broke down, even the driving became more aggressive. McGuinness is the one person who stands up for ordinary people.’ So what about his time as a terrorist? ‘A lot of people have pasts. I think he is like Mandela, I really do.’

Others disagree. And not just Gay Mitchell, his crushingly-dull rival from the ruling Fine Gael party, who told McGuinness during another presidential debate: ‘I’ve met Nelson Mandela myself — and you’re no Nelson Mandela, Martin.’

The campaign to succeed Mary McAleese in a largely ceremonial post has been farcical and voters seem unimpressed by the choices. Dana Scallon’s campaign has become a national joke, with the ultra-conservative former MEP constantly waving a copy of the EU constitution, becoming embroiled in bizarre old stories of child abuse within her family and blaming a car tyre blow-out this week on ‘sabotage’ by her enemies.

Then there is David Norris, the first openly-gay person elected to public office in Ireland. The early favourite, his campaign crashed after details emerged of a letter on parliamentary paper seeking clemency for a former partner convicted of the rape of a teenage boy, made worse by an interview from 2002 in which he appeared to condone pederasty. Scarcely more popular is the ‘Quango Queen’, Mary Davis.

The two front-runners alongside McGuinness are Sean Gallagher, a star of Ireland’s version of Dragons’ Den and Michael D. Higgins, an elderly poet and Labour veteran. But watching this diminutive pink-headed pensioner limp into a meeting, it is easy to see why he fails to create much excitement. 

Yet while the campaign has been comedic, there has been one fascinating aspect: the way it has uncorked deep concerns over the IRA bottled up for so long in the Republic the terrorists claimed to be fighting to join.

McGuinness seems surprised by this. He told me after his Cork rally that while the north had made big strides along the road to peace, he was dismayed to discover such outdated attitudes lurking south of the border. ‘But I’m not naive. I knew I would be a threat to the establishment.’

Some attacks have been predict-able, such as warnings from political rivals that foreign investment would be jeopardised by a ‘terrorist’ in the presidential palace. And inevitably senior figures in the forces have indicated apprehension over the idea of a former IRA chief as their titular head.

He has been repeatedly accused of lying over his claim to have left the IRA in 1974; the presenter of yet another presidential debate even stacked 12 books in front of the candidate, all disputing his version of events. 

Fintan O’Toole, one of Ireland’s best-known commentators, asked whether the nation wanted a head of state liable for arrest over war crimes. ‘Let’s put it on the record again,’ he wrote. ‘The IRA killed 644 civilians, by far the largest category of its victims. By contrast, and contradicting its self-image as defender of the Catholic community, it killed just 28 loyalist paramiltaries.’

Fears have been voiced over the wisdom of handing Sinn Fein the propaganda coup of the presidency during the centenary of the 1916 Easter Uprising, while McGuinness has been forced to say he would welcome the Queen in Ireland. His party boycotted her visit earlier this year.

Most woundingly, McGuinness has been condemned by several families of victims of IRA terror. David Kelly, son of a slain Irish soldier, confronted him during canvassing in a shopping centre, holding up a picture of his late father and demanding the names of the murderers. 

The family of shot police officer Frank Hand said McGuinness had ‘blood on his hands’. Then a walkabout in Limerick was cancelled last week after Anne McCabe, the widow of another dead officer, said McGuinness held secret meetings with one of her husband’s killers shortly after his murder 15 years ago.

Watching the campaign with horror just a few miles down the road from McGuinness’s own home is Lowry Mathers, a 63-year-old dairy farmer in Donagheady. He apologised for choking up as he told me how his wife Joanne was shot in the neck 30 years ago as she collected census forms.

He learned only recently she did not die immediately, the killer — who has never been identified — shooting her a second time as she lay bleeding in a doorway. 

‘It’s painful to watch this election,’ said Mathers, recalling how their infant son used to run to the door hoping his mother was returning home after her murder. ‘It’s an absolute disgrace. Whatever he says, Martin McGuinness was in charge of the IRA in Londonderry at that time. If anyone knows who murdered Joanne, Martin McGuinness knows.’

If the polls are right, the revulsion in ‘Middle Ireland’ over such atrocities will stop the former IRA chief winning the presidency. At the start of the campaign he was 3-1 second favourite, but the odds have lengthened to 20-1.

But he may still win Sinn Fein’s biggest share of the vote in the Republic, building on its success in February’s parliamentary election when it nearly tripled its number of MPs. 

Ultimately, the hostility McGuinness has aroused may even help his party. The long war it now fights is to oust Fianna Fail — broken and discredited by the banking scandals after dominating Irish politics for the best part of a century — as the main republican party in Ireland, just as it replaced the respected Social Democratic and Labour Party north of the border.

Next time, it will be that bit harder for critics to confront him and his party over their blood-stained past. As one commentator in Dublin put it to me: ‘Martin is taking a bullet for the boys.’

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