Soldier's son highlights inconvenient truth about SF

 

INSIDE POLITICS: THE BRAVERY of a murdered soldier’s son last Monday brought the Irish electorate face to face with the significance of Martin McGuinness’s campaign for the presidency of Ireland.

It focused attention on something that no amount of political debating could: what Sinn Féin is seeking on Thursday week is a retrospective endorsement from the people of this State for the long campaign of terror waged by the Provisional IRA.

Many voters may have avoided facing that uncomfortable fact before last Monday and some may even have believed the Sinn Féin line that there was some kind of smear campaign against their candidate.

The decision of David Kelly, whose father Private Patrick Kelly was shot dead by the IRA along with Garda Gary Sheehan in Derrada Wood in Co Leitrim back in 1983, to confront McGuinness about the murderous actions of his associates has ensured that nobody can go to the polls on Thursday week in ignorance of what they are being asked to endorse.

By putting up a presidential candidate who played such a leading role in the IRA for so long, Sinn Féin is clearly asking the Irish people to accept the legitimacy of the republican movement’s record over the past 40 years, a record that involved the murder of gardaí and a member of the Irish Army as well as so many people in Northern Ireland.

There is no escaping the symbolism of the campaign by Sinn Féin to have an individual who was so centrally involved in the Provisional IRA campaign elected to the position of head of State and Supreme Commander of the Army.

The party could have run somebody from the younger generation of Sinn Féin, who was not involved in the IRA campaign, but it chose deliberately not to do so. As a consequence the central issue in the election has inevitably been the totality of the candidate’s record.

The indignant reaction of McGuinness to the tough interview given by Miriam O’Callaghan indicates that Sinn Féin has been taken aback by the unremitting focus on the candidate’s record. It also seems that the party may have made a major miscalculation by assuming that because his IRA record was not an issue in Northern politics, it would not be examined in the Republic.

Voters have also picked up on an undertone in the Sinn Féin campaign that implies a lack of respect, or even open contempt, for this State and its institutions. McGuinness refers constantly to the Irish Republic as “down here” and Sinn Féin literature calls it “the 26 counties”. The majority of people in this State take some pride in its institutions, including the presidency.

The other candidates, with the notable exception of Gay Mitchell, have shirked their responsibility to raise McGuinness’s record and have been willing to leave it to the media. Kelly’s intervention has exposed their cowardice and ensured that, whichever way they vote, people will go to the polls with their eyes wide open.

It was striking that during last Wednesday’s Prime Timedebate all of the candidates apart from Mitchell again ignored the elephant in the room. When Michael D Higgins and Senator David Norris questioned the fitness for office of Seán Gallagher, because of his Fianna Fáil associations, Mitchell pounced to say it was extraordinary that his rivals had found their voices on Gallagher when they remained mute about McGuinness’s IRA past.

That said, Gallagher was not particularly impressive in the way he handled the questions about his role in Fianna Fáil and his attitude to the mistakes made by the party in government. It was not until the following day that he gave the answer he should have given during the debate and dissociated himself from the actions of the former government.

Gallagher is clearly walking a tightrope by trying to hoover up as much as possible of the Fianna Fáil vote while also appealing to the wider electorate who punished the party so savagely only last February. So far he has managed the trick and made himself a real contender but he will find it getting harder the closer it gets to polling day.

Already Gallagher’s performance is being quietly hailed in Fianna Fáil as a vindication of Micheál Martin’s strategy of not running a candidate in the election. At this stage it looks as if Gallagher is going to be in the top two on the first count and that is far better than any formally endorsed Fianna Fáil candidate could have hoped to do. If he actually wins the office it will be an extraordinary achievement.

Higgins is still the favourite and he has achieved his front-runner position by declining to get engaged in any kind of controversy and smiling his way through the campaign. His long political record has stood to him and it is a huge asset.

Mitchell is battling to get back into contention and the next week or so will tell whether he can achieve it. His courage in being the only candidate to take on Sinn Féin should have helped to galvanise traditional Fine Gael voters in his favour, but there is little indication to date that this is happening.

What may help him is that Fine Gael TDs now realise that the party will have a serious problem if its candidate performs as poorly as the polls have indicated and that could puncture the confidence of the Government at a critical time in the run-up to the budget.

The other three candidates, Mary Davis, David Norris and Dana Rosemary Scallon, all seem to be trailing back towards the end of the field at this stage and they could see their share of the vote squeezed further in the final run in to polling day. Still, there have been so many twists and turns in the campaign to date that anything is possible.