Martin McGuinness’ journey from guerrilla commander to mainstream politician took a new turn on Friday when his Sinn Fein party said he would be put forward to run for president of the Republic of Ireland.
A hero among Catholics in British-controlled Northern Ireland for helping to end three decades of sectarian bloodshed and give them an equal voice in a power-sharing government, McGuinness is a more controversial figure south of the border.
A keen chess player and shrewd political strategist, McGuinness will need all his wits and charm to win over the Republic’s middle-classes, many of whom will baulk at voting for a man who once fought British soldiers in street battles.
He is currently deputy first minister in Northern Ireland’s government.
“It’s a game changer because this is now going to be a fascinating, dramatic and dirty election campaign,” political analyst and barrister Noel Whelan said. “Martin McGuinness is nationalist Northern Ireland’s political hero, but he’s a very divisive figure in the Republic and Sinn Fein are a divisive political entity.”
Left-wing Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the now defunct Irish Republican Army (IRA), has capitalized on anger in the Republic over its financial crisis.
In parliamentary elections in February, Sinn Fein more than tripled its number of seats to 14 in the 166 seat lower chamber to emerge as the Ireland’s second largest opposition party.
Once an organization whose members were officially banned from speaking on Irish media until 1993, a victory for McGuiness in the Oct. 27 poll would crown Sinn Fein’s position in the Irish mainstream both north and south of the border.
While the role is chiefly ceremonial, Ireland’s president has the right to refer legislation to the Irish Supreme Court, presenting potential difficulties for Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny should McGuinness get elected.
Sinn Fein has been a staunch critic of Kenny’s coalition government and its adherence to the tough fiscal targets under an EU-IMF bailout.
McGuinness’ main rivals will be Gay Mitchell, candidate for Kenny’s Fine Gael party and front-runner Michael Higgins, who is representing the junior government Labour Party.
McGuinness’s selection as a Sinn Fein candidate will go for party approval today.
Once McGuinness has sealed the nomination, he would temporarily stand down as deputy first minister, Sinn Fein said.
A former trainee butcher, McGuinness abandoned his apprenticeship in 1970 to join the IRA when the guerrilla group began its 30-year campaign against British rule, swiftly rising to become a senior commander.