Positioning for the Presidency
It was certainly within Sinn Fein’s strategic vision to make a bid for the presidency in 2011. The Dublin Government was well aware of it and abided by a rule of thumb – follow the money. It knew what the combined finances of the party and its alter ego were being prioritised for; a place in government in the North, a place in government in the South, gazing over both from within the Aras which would allow it to convey an overarching sense of national unity. Partition would still be there but would seem less relevant and thus less objectionable to nationalists. Yet Macmillan’s events intervened and the 2007 election debacle put matters on hold.
Since then Sinn Fein has made a remarkable recovery. Its fortunes are linked to the implosion of Fianna Fail. Its electoral success earlier this year came in the wake of Fianna Fail’s disastrous management of the economy. Votes that could otherwise be expected to go the way of the Soldiers of Destiny instead landed in the laps of the Soldiers of Decommissioning. The opportunity to make further gains has been gifted to the party because Fianna Fail, having botched the Gay Byrne option, then pulled up short in the warm up to the race for the presidency. Fianna Fail left dangerously exposed by its own ineptitude can hardly claim to be taken aback by the appearance of a menacing Sinn Fein U Boat alongside its own rudderless vessel.
Moreover, the identity of Fianna Fail with government austerity programmes has the effect of eroding its oppositional credentials. As one Fianna Fail TD argued, every time his party’s finance spokesperson Michael McGrath ‘says the government is right it makes us look like Fine Gael lite. It creates the view that Sinn Fein is the real opposition.’ Adams may be less than inspiring in the Dail but Pearse Doherty is a far cry from his economically illiterate leader.
Martin McGuinness hopes that with this backdrop a disaffected Fianna Fail grassroots in search of a mast to which it could nail its colours might just throw its vote his way in opposition to either of the government parties’ presidential hopefuls. A year down the road, when the current governing coalition would certainly not be as popular as it now is, McGuinness’s chances would be considerably increased. Now, the balance of forces is not in his favour.
At this juncture the McGuinness intervention is likely to galvanise the Fine Gael constituency against him. He risks uniting the camp of a leading rival. It is a much heftier constituency than Sinn Fein’s. The last thing the Northern Catholic party wants to be doing is inadvertently calling out a large constituency against itself. That constituency is already adding its shoulder to the wheel that pushes the question ‘will the Irish people want someone who conducted a murder campaign in the Aras?’
The experienced journalist Liam Clarke, author of a book on McGuinness, has argued that the decision to field the former IRA chief of staff is a master stroke by Sinn Fein with no obvious downside. This may not be so straightforward. If the media watching the event has started as it means to go on, then the line and tone of its questioning today has the potential to turn the presidential election into a very divisive issue, not only in the South but also in the North. Unionism is bound to be angered by the move which it will interpret as an attempt by McGuinness to seek reward throughout the country for his IRA past. The work McGuinness has done in recent years in forging unity within the political class may be undermined by his current venture. The more he is vigorously questioned about his IRA past the greater the potential for instability within unionism.
What a strange turnaround it would be if one of the main architects of the peace process was to face accusations of undermining it.