Questions for Mr McGuinness

 

AS THE presidential campaign gets under way, the abilities, weaknesses and past activities of the various candidates are being subjected to intense scrutiny. That is entirely appropriate. What is on offer is seven years of service in the State’s highest office where the incumbent will be required to represent the country with independence, authority and dignity. Having entered the contest, the candidates tacitly acknowledged the process would involve not just baby kissing and speech making, but pressurised interviews and critical evaluations of their past. Journalists would fail in their responsibilities to voters and the democratic process if they avoided raising difficult, embarrassing or damaging issues.

Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin’s nominee in the election, has taken particular umbrage over the media’s questioning of his veracity in connection with IRA membership and the activities he engaged in while a paramilitary commander in Derry. Mr McGuinness initially dismissed his critics as “West Brits” – a traditional response from the 1970s - before adopting a less abusive attitude. But the message is still the same: his violent past is not open for discussion or inspection. He wishes to be judged only on the part he played in the peace process; in bringing about the decommissioning of IRA weapons and his role as deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive. Such an approach has no place in this election.

From the outset, Mr McGuinness must have realised that his party’s political strategy, designed to outflank and further damage Fianna Fáil, was something of a poisoned chalice. Not only was he required to leave the Northern Ireland Executive at a delicate stage in its development, but his paramilitary activities would, once again, become a matter of public controversy on both sides of the border.

As might be expected, in view of Gay Mitchell’s poor showing in opinion polls, Fine Gael was the first party to question whether Mr McGuinness was an “appropriate candidate” for the office of president. A measured assault, it put into words the doubts of many voters. There was, however, another consideration. Threatened by the prospect of its candidate trailing in after Mr McGuinness, Fine Gael followed up by appealing for support to Fianna Fáil voters. Such conduct, however self-serving, is the meat and drink of politics.

Elections are hard-fought events. The law protects the reputations of candidates from smears and downright lies. Apart from that, the public anticipates that robust exchanges will serve as a guide to character and resilience. Mr McGuinness is an extremely able individual who has made an important contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland and has shown great skill, imagination and diplomacy in his sharing of power with successive Democratic Unionist leaders. As a candidate, however, he has a responsibility to answer valid questions about his past, particularly in relation to matters that might affect the office of president.