Perspectives on the presidency


A number of writers give their perspectives on the Presidential race

Martin McGuinness and the IRA

PEARSE AND Connolly woke up one Easter Morning and decided to seize the GPO. Young Michael Collins joined in. No one supported them because there were peaceful, constitutional options available to bring about reform, but the terrorists, through an illegal organisation, the IRA, beginning in 1919, and now led by Collins, began murdering fellow Irishmen and blowing up peacekeeping troops.

That is how history would be taught to our children if we were to use as a template the way many journalists and opponents of Martin McGuinness single out his membership of the IRA, devoid of placing it in the context of partition, 50 years of discrimination and humiliation of nationalists, and routine state violence – what Fine Gael’s Peter Barry described as “the nationalist nightmare”.

For the record, the first sectarian killings (of John Scullion and Peter Ward) were carried out by the Ulster Volunteer Force; the first bombings (in 1969), by loyalists; the first state killings (of Sammy Devenney, in front of his family; of nine-year-old Patrick Rooney, shot dead in his bed), by the Royal Ulster Constabulary; the first British soldier to die (Hugh McCabe, a Catholic, home on leave and defending Divis Flats) was killed by the RUC; and the first RUC officer to be killed (Constable William Arbuckle), by loyalists. None of the state killers were ever charged but were protected by the British government, as are all of their assassins to this day.

Let everyone tell the truth and then people can decide the morality or conduct of the protagonists, including the negligence of successive Irish governments which became complacent about partition and did little to address injustice towards nationalists.

Incidentally, although the Irish government established a Bureau of Military History to record the deeds of those who had fought the British, Éamon de Valera, Richard Mulcahy and Seán Lemass declined to contribute a record of their past, even 30 years after the War of Independence.

Martin McGuinness was in the IRA and never sought to distance himself from the IRA or from his responsibility as an Irish republican leader. What the other parties do not want to examine is the British contribution to the conflict – its killings, torture of prisoners, its collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, its cover-ups and refusal to tell the truth (especially in relation to the Dublin-Monaghan bombings) – because that then places McGuinness’s life in a context not dissimilar to those who historically resisted British rule.

McGuinness’s position in terms of responsibility is no different from those held up by Fine Gael and others as model patriots who were in the IRA during the War of Independence or on the Treaty side during the Civil War, when shocking deeds were carried out. Does Gay Mitchell forget having lavished praise on Michael Collins in 2006, while also suggesting the government should consider a role as joint president for the British monarch in a new all-Ireland state?

Fine Gael’s querying of McGuinness as an “appropriate candidate” is mere expediency. Fine Gael went into government with the former chief of staff of the IRA, Seán MacBride, in 1948. Fine Gael proposed for the presidency in 1945 and 1959 Seán Mac Eoin, who is reputed to have killed up to two dozen Royal Irish Constabulary men.

McGuinness has stood for election in the North, been elected as an MP and Member of the Legislative Assembly, worked for the peace process (including bringing lessons that he learned in Ireland to Iraq, the Basque country and Sri Lanka); worked for a ceasefire, IRA decommissioning and the devolution of justice and peace; and has been minister of education and deputy first minister with Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson. He has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Police Service of Northern Ireland after the killings of its officers, a stance for which his life has been threatened by dissidents.

He has represented the Executive on trade missions to the US and the EU, which has attracted millions of pounds in investment.

Fine Gael Ministers, including Enda Kenny, have sat with McGuinness on the North-South Ministerial Council for years without demur. No one in Fine Gael queried his worthiness until he decided to stand for the Irish presidency. Good enough for the unionists, but not for the good people of the Republic?

Where is the reconciliation and forgiveness that we in the North were exhorted to show at difficult times in the peace process?

This newspaper last Thursday published a story by Peter Murtagh of an account of his visit in 1986 to the home of Frank Hegarty, an IRA man/British informer, whom the IRA killed. Peter worked for the Guardian and claims that while interviewing the Hegarty family, two “heavies” arrived and ushered him out to the street where McGuinness was sitting in a car and effectively told him that the interview was over: “Ended by McGuinness and his two heavies.”

When asked, Peter told me he couldn’t remember why he didn’t write about the incident at the time. But he could remember the incident now! Ooom.

Many in the Republic appear not to have “moved on” and are still fighting the proverbial war. The freedoms that people enjoy were made possible because IRA volunteers sacrificed their lives during the independence struggle. It was a time of terrible war, similar to ours in the North, which thankfully is behind us, though selective accounts of death and tragedy are raked up every day by those cynically seeking electoral advantage, by those attempting to disguise their own shortcomings. DANNY MORRISON

Danny Morrison is a writer, former director of publicity for Sinn Féin, and former IRA prisoner

David Norris and the age of consent

FIRST OF all, I should declare my interest: I consider David Norris a friend, as he lectured me in Trinity College and I have known him since.

I have frequently been in agreement with the stances he has taken on many subjects, not least his campaigning for the end of discrimination against gay people in Ireland. Despite the repeal of discriminatory legislation, there are people who are uncomfortable with the idea of a gay president. There is no doubt that some of them are now rallying behind the controversy over his letters on behalf of Ezra Nawi.

There are also many who have no problem with his sexuality but feel the letters raise important questions.

His entry into the presidential campaign was always going to provoke very detailed scrutiny of his personal life and public stances. The Nawi controversy has brought to the fore the issue of the age of consent to sexual activity, which touches a very exposed nerve, especially in the wake of the various reports on child sexual abuse.

The age of consent to sexual activity is a complex issue, and there is no unanimity about what that age should be. In Ireland the age of consent is at the higher end of the international scale at 17, but penalties for sex with children under 15 are more severe than with children between 15 and 17. The law also distinguishes between sex between young people who are contemporaries, and sex between the young and older people, especially those in a position of authority.

The journey to adulthood is a process and the law marks various stages in it, albeit in a necessarily arbitrary way. Some 18-year-olds are more mature than others, yet all are deemed by the State to have reached full adulthood. Similarly, not all 16-year-olds may be competent to make decisions about their medical treatment, but the law permits them to do so. Some will reach sexual maturity younger than others, but the law can only be a blunt instrument.

The law on the age of sexual consent assumes that there is an age below which a young person cannot fully comprehend the implications of sexual activity and is, therefore, not fully capable of consent. It also exists to protect young people from those who might seek to use them for their sexual gratification. In 2001, speaking on the 2000 Sex Offenders Bill, Norris told the Seanad he believed in the “principle of consent” rather than any specific age of consent, although he acknowledged this could be difficult to manage. He also said: “Very frequently and in most cases viewed positively by the subject, a young gay man’s experience is in partnership with somebody who is some years older.”

For better or worse, this brings him into conflict with those who think that young people, both boys and girls, should be protected from older adults in relationships where there is inevitably a serious power imbalance. This issue is at the heart of the Nawi controversy and it will not go away. CAROL COULTER

Carol Coulter is Legal Affairs Editor

None of the above

SUNDAY MORNING’S rugby triumph reminded us of what it is to be proud and inspired. The nation was lifted by a team that worked to get the best out of each other, for each other and for their country. It was a great moment for our bruised nation.

Is it too much to expect that the presidential election would engender the same sort of feelings? After all, this is a contest to select the best of Irish character to become Ireland’s first citizen; someone of whom we can be proud. Yet the level of public despondency and apathy towards this election and the candidates is remarkable.

I have met very few people – even from political parties – who have confidence in any of the candidates. People are opting to vote for “the least worst option,” as opposed to supporting someone they believe in.

I, too, am dealing with this dilemma. I do not want to give support to a person or a party that I don’t believe in. I certainly don’t want any political party in the post-election analysis equating support for their candidate with support for the party.

As someone who has lived and loved politics all my life, there is no way I wouldn’t vote. I abhor the abdication of responsibility in not voting. For the first time in my life I find myself veering towards spoiling my vote as an expression of democracy in this election. I’m calling it the “none of the above” option.

It has been argued to me that this is a waste of a vote and not a legitimate way to participate. I don’t accept this. The only truly wasted vote is the one that is not cast. A vote is cast when you do what you will to the ballot paper you’ve been issued. A spoiled vote is not counted, but it is registered. It can be turned into registered disapproval. This is an option employed in Spanish elections.

Turnout is expected to be low. But turnout figures in Irish elections are not very reliable due mainly to sloppy compiling of electoral registers. Accordingly, low turnout cannot automatically be equated with indifference or protest. The only way to clearly voice discontent with the talent on offer or the process is to spoil your vote. A low turnout will be dismissed readily. A high percentage of spoiled votes, say 20 per cent, cannot be so readily dismissed. It involves clearly committed voters taking the time and trouble to exercise their franchise in a constructive protest.

In our presidents we’re used to people of integrity, intelligence, vision, experience and sound judgment. To be asked to choose between people of such little experience, a person whose judgment is suspect, a reconstructed gangster, an inveterate scrapper, someone whose politics I am totally opposed to and a garrulous old man is not appealing. It’s early days yet and perhaps some one of the candidates will inspire. But for the moment, I’m sticking with the “none of the above” option. I’d love to be convinced out of my constructive protest. FIONA O'MALLEY

Fiona O’Malley is the former PD TD for Dún Laoghaire

Who was Alice Collins?

“For the last 20 years I have been someone who is trying to build the peace . . .” – Martin McGuinness (September 17th)

WHEN I heard Martin McGuinness speak these words about his nomination, a forgotten name unexpectedly arose in my memory, Alice Collins, and what happened to her less than 15 years ago, on April 10th, 1997.

On that day, Alice (46), an RUC Reserve Constable, was shot in the back while on duty outside Derry courthouse – the high-velocity bullet passed right through her. The next day The Irish Times reported that the shooting was carried out on the orders of a “senior Sinn Féin leader in Derry”.

The reason I remembered her was because at the time of the shooting I was writing Pity for the Wicked, a book-length poem about Northern Ireland. She seemed to me then, as now, a memorable symbol of the cruelty done to so many individuals and families during the peace process.

The gun that shot Collins was fired in the midst of widespread speculation that the IRA would declare a second ceasefire – the first had been ended by the 1996 Canary Wharf bomb. In fact the media were expecting the new ceasefire to be announced at a press event in Derry on the afternoon of the shooting. Commentators believed the announcement was designed to improve Sinn Féin’s chances in the Westminster elections three weeks later.

Why did the IRA do something so obviously counterproductive?

They did it in part because Mitchel McLaughlin, the Sinn Féin candidate for Derry, was certain to be beaten by SDLP leader John Hume.

Public opinion didn’t matter as much to republicans then as it does now. But the main reason was strategic. Collins was a human pawn in a power game of political chess.

In 1997 only three security force members were murdered by the Provisional IRA: Stephen Restorick, the last soldier to die in the conflict, killed by a high-velocity bullet in Bessbrook on February 12th; and two RUC men, Roland Graham and David Johnston, shot at close range in Lurgan, on June 16th.

Their murders and that of Collins can be seen as messages sent to the British and Irish governments to make concessions in the peace process – or else. But Collins had been picked to play a special role: she was part of the Westminster election campaign.

It could be said that she stood in the election; that the IRA put an X against her name and eliminated her even before the count began.

She wasn’t a woman, she was a spoiled vote; and her cry when she fell was merely a political slogan. The Irish Times reported that Collins “slumped to the ground, blood pouring from her back, crying, ‘I am shot, I am shot’.”

At the time Gerry Adams made the cruel strategy of his party crystal clear: the attack, which he refused to condemn, was “very much regretted”, but had Sinn Féin been invited to all-party talks after the ending of the ceasefire, the incident “would certainly not have happened”.

In any event, the peace process continued. Six weeks later, on May 20th, Martin McGuinness met Quentin Thomas, envoy of new prime minister Tony Blair in Derry. In October he met Blair himself in Stormont. The following year the powersharing government was set up, and McGuinness became minister of education, in charge of the education of Collins’s three children.

Unfortunately, by then those children were motherless: 13 months after she was shot, Collins died, the cause of death given as leukaemia, probably why she is not in Lost Lives, David McKittrick’s invaluable catalogue of all those killed in the conflict.

But, from a historical perspective, she belongs on the record. From a human perspective, I doubt that being pierced by a bullet did her health any good.

Her death caused little media stir, largely because on the day it was announced, May 10th, 1998, Sinn Féin held a special ardfheis to sanction the Belfast Agreement. To facilitate the Provisional movement, the government allowed IRA prisoners out of Portlaoise Prison to attend – a good news day for them, but a bad news day for Collins.

She was forgotten then and she is forgotten now. But I suspect McGuinness still remembers the use that was made of her. BRIAN LYNCH

Brian Lynch is a member of Aosdána. His bookPity for the Wicked was shortlisted for the 2007 Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize.

President as commander in chief

FINE GAEL’S Phil Hogan has expressed the view that Martin McGuinness, as a former “terrorist”, would be wholly unsuited to the position of president of Ireland and commander in chief of our Defence Forces.

By implication, Fine Gael raises the spectre of a former paramilitary, sworn to usurp the authority of the Irish Republic, suddenly gaining command of our armed forces. The general staff however will be unperturbed.

The Defence Forces, or Óglaigh na hÉireann, are no strangers to political turbulence and moments of transformation in Irish society.

The Defence Forces were born in violent times and are in a direct line from the Irish Republican Army and Free State Army. Over time, civilian control of the military has become highly evolved and is considered robust by international standards. Originally legislated for under the Free State constitution of 1922 and the Temporary Provisions Act of 1923, the Defence Forces are now governed and regulated by the Constitution and the Defence Acts 1954-2007.

Throughout the most fraught periods of our recent history, the Defence Forces, unlike the armed forces of some of our neighbouring EU states, have been associated with compliance with the rule of law and subordination to the democratic process. As a consequence, over the lifetime of the Republic, Óglaigh na hÉireann is regarded as non-political and loyal servants of the State.

If elected president, McGuinness would indeed become the supreme commander of the Defence Forces. Article 13.4.2 of the Constitution vests command of the Defence Forces in the president. However, articles 13.5.1 and 13.9 qualify the manner in which such command is exercised in two key areas. Firstly, all commands must be constitutional and lawful. Secondly, and crucially, the president may only issue commands under the explicit direction of the government through the Council of Defence.

Therefore, while the president enjoys de jure command of the Defence Forces, de facto command lies in the hands of the minister for defence and the taoiseach of the day.

Phil Hogan can rest assured, therefore, that Minister for Defence Alan Shatter and Taoiseach Enda Kenny would be well placed to curb the Napoleonic urges of any of the current presidential candidates.

However, there may be unease within the Defence Forces about McGuinness’s candidacy for other reasons.

All Army officers, myself included, who served in the Defence Forces during the Troubles will be puzzled at McGuinness’s claim that he left the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s. The Defence Forces/Garda Síochána intelligence brief – up to the year 2000 – clearly indicates that this is not the case.

If elected, given the Army’s tradition of respect for the will of the people and the democratic process, a McGuinness presidency would be unproblematic for the Defence Forces. His record as a peacemaker makes him a worthy candidate for the office.

His refusal, however, to be truthful about his IRA past is anathema to the spirit of the peace process and ought to render his candidacy problematic for the voting public. TOM CLONAN

Tom Clonan is a commentator on security matters