Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Fianna Fail outflanked by McGuinness Aras bid

SINN Fein have put themselves at the centre of the presidential campaign with the nomination of Martin McGuinness. In so doing they have stripped the mantle of main opposition party from the shoulders of Fianna Fail and have changed fundamentally the dynamic of the campaign for Head of State.

In the days leading up to the announcement last week Fianna Fail were floundering in confusion and internal division and strife, much of it focused on the decision not to contest the presidential election. Now they have been laid open to the charge of political irrelevance in the other issue facing them: their replacement by Sinn Fein as the main party of opposition. Micheal Martin has lost authority and control. He faces the danger of being dismissed or of losing what little backbone is left within the party.

This further attack, by the nomination of McGuinness, on Fianna Fail's growing political irrelevance was a primary objective of Sinn Fein and has been convincingly achieved already without even a campaign utterance. The new shape of the presidential battle will have a similar sobering impact on the candidates from other parties as on Fianna Fail. The developments represent a major change in Sinn Fein's political strategy. Up to now the party has viewed the presidency as of marginal importance, even irrelevant. Gerry Adams has expressed his views about the presidency in the following terms: "We are only interested in elective positions as part of that process of bringing about change for the benefit of the people." And he also said, on the same occasion: "We have a slight difficulty in that a lot of our very public leadership is identified with the North. . ."

These points were made in 'Hot Press', in an interview with Jason O'Toole.

This was said at the time of the 2007 General Election when Sinn Fein failed to make the kind of impact that would give relevance to the claim that the party could become a force in the South. Since then Adams himself changed the balance of power and strengthened his leadership in the Republic by moving down to Louth and winning a seat. Combined with the party's wider success in February of this year, a whole new set of circumstances have quite quickly evolved -- hugely reinforced by the electoral collapse of Fianna Fail. Adams and McGuinness can irrefutably argue that times have irreversibly changed since 2007. A successful Sinn Fein campaign in the general election makes the presidential prize a realistic and legitimate political adjunct.

Because of the stupidity of the Irish political system not shaping, modernising or regulating the office, there is a convincing case for the party, if it wins the presidency, to argue in favour of the use of the position -- as both Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese have used it -- for quasi-political speeches and for more direct involvement. This would open up uncharted waters likely to be exploited in a far more radical way by McGuinness. The situation is a direct derivative of the State's failure to respond meaningfully to the evolution of the presidential role.

In the light of this, the second part of the 2007 quote has also been changed by developments so that the party could argue the unthinkable -- that a Sinn Fein president could act as a check or balance over those holding power and could legitimately further such a fundamental aim as eventual unity. The very thing that Adams described as "a slight difficulty' in 2007" -- "public leadership identified with the North" -- would have been modified by the new circumstance of public approval if Martin McGuinness won.

And they're not going into this to lose, are they? The strength of Sinn Fein's position is reinforced by the limited capacities of the two political candidates, Michael D Higgins and Gay Mitchell. They do not have a comparable agenda. All they have is the supposed party support based on current opinion poll and electoral mathematics.

This has to be set against the widespread public disaffection towards politicians, far more likely to manifest itself in the present economic climate through votes falling away from the Fine Gael and Labour candidates.

David Norris is no saviour for such circumstances. His Friday night announcement of re-entry into the campaign depends on an increasingly elusive position being adopted by fringe politicians among the Independents. It is also a nonsensical position. These elected representatives seem to have lost contact with their constitutional role as defined for the presidential election and the duties they have in that capacity. These are to decide on their nominations in the light of their judgment. This is a very different thing from facilitating the general public in making the constitutional decision on behalf of their elected representatives. Alarmingly, this does not bother them. As Maureen O'Sullivan, one of the Independents, said last week, in amelioration of her uncertainty about letting Norris in: "We are all flawed human beings." That is a common denominator all of us can meet.

Norris disqualified himself and withdrew as a result of very serious misjudgments, including the fact that he misled the Israeli authorities about his status in appealing on behalf of Nawi and that he claims an alternative position to the law of the land over the sexual relations between adults and the under-aged. He also claimed that he was not still with his partner at time of Nawi's crime, yet in a previous interview he had claimed he was still with his ex partner several years after the incident.

How he could consider re-entry is bewildering. It is undoubtedly the fact that any media manipulation, alleged to have been deployed against him, pales into insignificance when set beside the pro-Norris manipulation of the facts surrounding his colourful but inept campaign so far.

WE are left with two other candidates at this point of writing, Sean Gallagher and Mary Davis. Gallagher's position is a pro-active one, aimed at lending a hand in the promotion of Ireland in business and trade terms. I find it well-intentioned but unconvincing in present circumstances.

As I have already written, Davis's position is much more central to the constitutional definition of the role. She has lived a life of vocational dedication which I admire and she represents to me a far more convincing voice as a real alternative to the rest that are on offer. Since I view the new contender, Martin McGuinness, as incapable of thinking as she does, and as a political opportunist who threatens the office as I have described it in five previous articles, I put her as a breath of sense and concern at the centre of the maelstrom that now looms ahead of us.