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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 3, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

    An attack as subtle as a ton of bricks

    Harry McGee

    I am sure of one thing. Fine Gael’s coordinated attack on Martin McGuinness over the past two days will have two effects. Number One. Martin McGuinness’s support won’t go down. Number Two. Gay Mithcell’s support won’t go up.

    One of the most commented-on moments of the 2007 General Election was Michael McDowell’s act of martyrdom. He cruelly exposed Gerry Adams’s woeful grasp on economics in the leadership debate and kiboshed Sinn Fein’s hopes of seat gains (the party ended up with one seat less). Of course, McDowell’s mission was, politically, a kamikaze one for him and his own party.

    My own sense is that Fine Gael’s replay of exercise does not follow the 2007 example neatly, or at all. It’s a different kind of election and Martin McGuinness is a different personality to Adams; less remote and aloof, possessed of more personality and charm. In addition, the attack is not based on competence; it’s based on character.

    The attacks yesterday from Phil Hogan and Paul Kehoe were crude.  Hogan’s branding of McGuinness as a terrorist is going to have repercussions. At Fine Gael’s launch today, Enda Kenny is going to have to stand with Hogan or deny him in his characterisationof McGuinnness as a terrorist. There’s no twin-track approach here where you get other people to go out to look after the dirty tricks departmennt while erecting some kind of Chinese walls to stay aloof  from the controversy.

    If Kenny agrees with Hogan that McGuinness is a terrrorist, that has the potential to poison the well of North-South relations. It’s wholly legitimate questioning McGuinness’s past, all those gaps, and  his implausible claim that he left the IRA in 1974. But describing him, in the present tense,  as a terrorist in the Aras  is different and a very serious charge for a senior Minister of the ruling Government to make.

    As Government ministers, the likes of ‘Hulk’ Hogan and Kehoe need to be a bit more temperate in their language. I don’t believe McGuinness will win but he may very well have the potential to beat Gay Mitchell in first preferences.  Fine Gael need to mobilise its vote and get out its core support. Anything else will be a  bellyflop  after its spectacular success in February.

    I’m not saying we need to airbrush history or euphemise McGuinness’s past. Anything but. But a Government party making snide and unsophisticated attacks like that isn’t going to get them anywere. If the party attacks McGuinness, it has to be on facts or events, to show contradictions in his accountds or a hypocrisy on his part. That’s how McDowell was so effective in 2007. He exposed the weaknesses and failures. Broad brush-stroke insults are going nowhere.

    The effect will be the opposite of what’s intended. It will keep McGuinness at centre stage. It will elicit him some  sympathy. Will it bolster Gay Mitchell’s support? I just don’t think so.

    It also highlights another phenomenon of Irish politics. Presidential elections are the nastiest of them all. All the parties open the cage and let out their dirty tricks[ departments. Some (and we’re not talking FG here) are more subtle than others. Look at the precedent. Fine Gael making a liar of Brian Lenihan senior in 1990 over a phone call to the Aras. Pee Flynn nastily casting aspersions on the state of Mary Robinson’s marriage. Mary McAleese being described as a “tribal time-bomb” by Eoghan Harris in 1997. And Adi Roche’s campaign disravelled partly because of her naivety and inexperience – but partly because of lots of subterranean spinning against her on her record as a boss and because of an obscure case involving her brother.

    It all makes for an intriguing campaign.

    • shellshock says:

      I heard Charlie Flanagan call MMG a liar on radio this morning with Pearse Doherty. He has a short memory. It seems like every single thing they said before the election was a lie.

      Mitchell made a fool out of himself yesterday. Despite muchos air time, he failed to make any use of it. And now he has added to the narrative of the dead da (unseemly), the ma of nine, the bus man, turned overpaid eurocrate etc.
      He supports Trocaire, but doesn’t like to talk about it. (takes out onion)

      These establishment guys are absolute pygmies. He forgets he urged us into Lisbon 2, showing contempt for the constitution and the electorate. That’s probably why is will end up near the bottom of the pile.

    • Caitriona McClean says:

      We don’t need to go back to 2007 for unsophisticated/crude abuse as a core part of a campaign. Take a look at the TV debates in 2011. It worked very well for FG six month ago but I agree that it wont work so well in the Presidential election. The fear/ anger factor is more difficult to generate now than with the mystery and panic associated with the economy. No one believes that SF will destabilize the peace process by participating in the Presidential election. People see a working peace and know Martin McGuinness is part of it. These are facts and yes FG can come up with is accusations regarding the past but many voters live in the present and have no experience of terror or war or discrimination or murder.

    • Dave Duggan says:

      See today’s post on my blog



      wondering if Charles Bronson as Bernardo O’Reilly would make a good President á la mythological musings of Richard Kearney.

    • seamus martin says:

      Interesting take on FG “making a liar out of Brian Lenihan Senior in 1990 over a phone call to the Aras.” Actually it wasn’t FG, it was The Irish Times.

    • RPE McCarthy says:

      Very good piece Harry.

      Mitchell has serious questions to answer himself. He is large C catholic although he is very much playing this down in the media. I have listened to him drone on about Christian Democracy for quite some time at Ard Fheiseanna.

      He should also be asked to explain the level of expenses that he has incurred since moving to Europe as an MEP and more importantly why he voted to keep expenses secret.

      I remember a good panorama or dispacthes program a few years ago exposing the fiasco of MEP expenses.

      His personal fitness and probity cannot be adequately assessed if he doesn’t put all his information in the public domain.

      Higgins and Mitchell are not being challenged on anything at the moment.

      Incidentally, somebody had to have the guts to confront McGuinness on the questions of credibility. I think you make a valid point though in so far as what is said can’t exactly be taken back afterwards.

      You are also in the cast of some senior party members talking about people that knew Billy Fox pretty well so there is still quite a bit of antipathy there.

    • Bryan Barrett says:

      Intriguing campaign, indeed. Following the candidates online from afar and the various press reports and rather tame and extremely gentlemanly and ladylike debates, followed by the incidents you describe above, would be amusing if it was not so mired in all that is a turn off in decent political discourse. The public tend to be far more perceptive than politicians understand in how they react to negativity. And there is no reason to believe that Irish voters, whatever they may say in public, will react any differently when ready to cast their votes, and their innate decency prompts them to make the choice which has in the end the most merit for the nation. Mud slingers rarely obtain serious voter support, substantive supportable rational argument always wins, on both sides of the Atlantic.

      The only exception would be if the effects of such irrational attacks generated passionate hysteria in response and the exchanges than escalated along tribal lines, and clearly that undercurrent is present, though as yet, thankfully unspoken. Having grown up knowing the power of that tribalism in the forties and fifties in Ireland, I had assumed that it was all but dead and gone; evidently not.

      It is my sincere hope that the debate becomes civil and becoming among all candidates, and remains so. The country needs the benefit of electing the most outstanding person to the office. Ireland is in a dark place right now and needs all the possible assistance available to emerge into a better future. Debating the realities of the leadership potential of the candidates will produce a better result for the country than the current tendency to hostility and demeaning any candidate for perceived political advantage.

    • Bryan Barrett says:

      Your comment…

    • Aonghus says:

      If the stellar performance of the last two occupants of the Aras has taught us anything (as the fresh paint and good vibes from the Queen’s visit are only barely fading), it must be that to have Martin M cGuinness as president would be a retrograde step (to paraphrase Heaney “Like putting a cold, wet glove back on”). However, as you articulated so well above, the predictable but unwelcome posturing from PH and PK, reverting to the holier-than-thou Fine Gael/John Bruton default setting, has potentially serious repercussions. Even a brief reflection would show you how ill-advised and, to my mind, deeply offensive these remarks can be, lest those who really suffered at the hands of paramilitaries in the north point out that we have asked them to swallow a lot more for peace than we have ever had to swallow ourselves. Suddenly misappropriating the justifiable anger of victims of northern violence when threatened with the prospect of a member of Sinn Fein in the phoenix park is not only lazy, it’s bad form – after all, he was good enough to be their deputy first minister.

    • Brian Toal says:

      How refreshing to read the objective article by Harry McGee that frankly and accurately puts in perspective the crude and outlandish outbursts by a trio of Fine Gael representatives. Their weekend comments have surely dipped to a new low in the campaign for election to the dignified office of President. The comments directed at Martin McGuinness must be an embarrassment to any mature and right thinking Fine Gael supporter. Thankfully we have journalists like Harry McGee who can approach the subject without the predictable pre-conceived views synonmous with with so many of his journalistic colleagues.

    • John B. Reid says:

      This article is another example of The Irish Times’ ‘Anyone but Mitchell (or Dana)’ strategy. I think that The Irish Times would even prefer a McGuinness presidency rather than a Mitchell or Scallon presidency. Mitchell and co. are very much correct in seeking to highlight Martin McGuinness’ true beliefs.

    • Paul says:

      What are Kenny and his gang going to do if Martin McGuinness becomes President of Ireland?
      Refuse to recognise the legitimacy of his election and demand another election?

    • Finn McCann says:

      The comments and ignorance demomstrated by Messrs Hogan; Kehoe; Shatter; Kehoe; Shatter;Flanagan and Mitchell with tacit support from their leader has done more for Martin McGuinness’ canditure than their dim political brains had intended. Their comments and strategy show their party has not moved its ideology. They are still stuck in their moronic, ill informed groove

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      If Irish people started some day saying what they meant and meaning what they said by some miracle perhaps guaranteed on balance we’d all be a lot better off.

    • Caitriona McClean says:

      I guess you didn’t like my comments. Throwing dirt is what Fine Gael do best.

    • Debra says:

      As I, and others have proposed elsewhere, there are seven candidates and seven years, so let us make one president out of all the candidates and give them a year each at the job (industrial wage maximum salary, of course).
      For the purposes of coming up with a name, I have taken two letters from the beginning of each candidate’s surname as follows:


      And voila, a name for Ireland’s new prez:

      President Schiminoda McGuga

      ps. Phil Hogan should take a very long sabbatical

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      But what is McGuinness? Why is the media so scared of getting to the bottom of that issue?

      Apparently he is now a man of peace. That’s great but if we are to forgive and forget what he did in the past then he needs to be honest about that past and what he did. As long as he pretends he wasn’t in the IRA or involved in all sorts then he can’t be givne a free pass.

      At the TRC in South Africa those who wanted clemency had to firstly face their victims and their families and admit what they did, which had to be verifiable by the State before clemancy could be given. Are we likely to see McGuinness ask forgiveness from the family of Jean McConville or from the shareholders of Northern Bank or of the long list of people with no knee caps or of all the business forced to pay protection money – not to mention the drugs and prostitution rings.

      It’s remarkable that as we sleep walk toward 2016 and an orgy of self denial about what it led to those of us who don’t worship at the alter of 1916 are going to be bullied into silence and there will be no debate and what we are meant to be celebrating because not one of the aims of 1916 have been achieved and in fact it can be argued that as we had Home Rule already in 1914 (even if the unionists didn’t like it), 1916 is directly to blame for all that followed, the war of independence, the civil war, the various political splits, the IRA, the provisional IRA, Real IRA, CIRA etc and all the loyalists thugs too.

      All of these issues need to be addressed.

    • jaygee says:

      If Sinn Fein is legitimate political party then it has the right to put forward a candidate
      for any elected office. The candidate should be questioned on the basis of his/her
      record, and personal integrity. There should be no areas of questioning not allowed.
      There should also be a full examination of the financial support each candidate is receiving.
      It seems illogical for Southern politicians and commentators who were happy enough to support
      Mcguinness and Adams in government with the equally extreme and disreputable DUP in the
      North to quibble now that SF have pushed forward one of the controversial figures into the
      Presidential campaign. Northern sensibilities are just as tender as Southern ones !

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      And then again maybe it would have enhanced their election prospects even further. To call them liars and crooks. Sure they were elected as such because they best reflected the vast majority of this polity State and society.

    • John Williams says:

      I agree that these unsubtle attacks on McGuinness won’t increase Mitchell’s vote but it will affect McGuinness’s vote. People are being reminded about the atrocities the IRA inflicted on civilians in Northern Ireland. Mc Guinness never answers the question directly about his leaving the IRA. He says it was 1974 which is unbelievable. As Miriam Lord said in her IT article -why did he not lose his kneecaps? That was the traditional provo instrument for treating deserters.
      I have not heard anybody ask McGuinness how he became ‘commander -in-chief” of the IRA in Derry. As far as I know the Provos did not have a cadet college to groom officers. Presumably,to get to the top in a ruthless murderous organisation like the IRA one had to be the most ruthless of the lot.

    • Harry McGee says:

      Sorry for delay in replying to comments, which are varied (polar in some cases!) but as always I’m struck by quality of the contributions! Seamus Martin: yes, the Irish Times made a liar out of him but was not the baiting done by FG and Garret FitzGerald?

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