Bruce Arnold

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

Top three candidates still have questions to answer

The Irish public should have serious misgivings about the electoral credentials of the leading presidential candidates who have either misled voters about their political backgrounds or allegiances, downgraded major aspects of their political views and attitudes or, in the case of Martin McGuinness, rejected responsibility for terrorist atrocities.

These urgent and immediate issues face us in the final 10 days. They concern the levels of truthfulness, transparency and, especially, trustworthiness that should define anyone worthy of election.

I will run through the leading candidates in order of opinion-poll preference as published yesterday in the 'Sunday Business Post', beginning with Sean Gallagher. (Michael D Higgins headed one Sunday paper poll.)

I published, last Monday, details of Gallagher's true association with the Fianna Fail party and his misleading public statements on the matter, including the claim that he was a 'sporadic' party member. He was not. He was a trusted member of the party's National Executive, the main party engine for policy and leadership. He also claimed publicly that he left the party in 2009. He did not. He remained in the party until 2011, when he resigned from the National Executive. Neither he nor his party organisation know, or have stated, when and if he actually resigned from Fianna Fail.

In the event of him winning the presidential election he would effectively be a Fianna Fail president at a time of unprecedented disgrace and shame for the party. Recently, Gallagher's former company, Smarthomes, which received Enterprise Ireland funding, removed from its website a listing of 45 companies Smarthomes had worked with, most of them property developers. Many of these are now in NAMA. This was done since October 7 when details of his Fianna Fail connections were published.

Michael D Higgins is in second place, 12 points behind Sean Gallagher, but still adding slightly to his total in the most recent Red C Poll and actually leading the field in another poll.

He occupies a role different from Gallagher's, in how he has handled certain key issues. He conceals behind an affable, paternal and wise exterior a curious set of characteristics -- the main one being a marked reticence to condemn or criticise certain people.

He was a long-time supporter of Yasser Arafat, whose al-Aqsa Brigade was responsible for the Jerusalem bus massacre, where 11 were murdered and 50 injured. When Arafat died only nine months later he still received a totally uncritical, indeed glowing, tribute from Michael D who also portrayed him as having difficulty controlling terrorist groups, when in fact he ran a murderous one of his own.

Higgins declared himself sympathetic to "those who fight the illegal occupation" in Gaza and even accused the EU of badly damaging its own credibility by proscribing Hamas.

The third candidate in order of current opinion poll preferences is Martin McGuinness, down three points at 13pc, a poor third hopefully earned by the courageous public criticism of his involvement in terrorist episodes that led to the murders of defence force and garda personnel. He also came out badly mauled from last Wednesday's debate.

In my opinion, Gay Mitchell was a clear winner then. He spoke truthfully, did not 'waffle' as the Fianna Fail candidate did, and made some positive statements. One of these was in favour of debating Ireland's possible return to the Commonwealth. (Not, as McGuinness described it, the "British Commonwealth"; that went long ago.) This was a red rag to the 'Bull' McGuinness, drawing from him a brief, savage expression of hatred for the British that is never far below the surface.

IN the face of Miriam's brave pursuit of him, that seemed even to surprise her, his body language and his words were altogether wrong. Here was an opportunity to explain and seek public reconciliation, which he has signally failed to do throughout the campaign. Instead, he bared his teeth and claws against any such acceptance of what he and the organisation to which he pledged lifelong and faithful service are guilty of in this country.

Sinn Fein followed the debate by immediately circulating its membership with the following message: "If you wish to complain about this evening's 'Prime Time' you can do so by contacting . . ." The message gave email and phone details. Not surprisingly, RTE was able to report "more than 100 messages".

Much more serious, however, is the presentation of McGuinness's supposed contribution to democratic progress in Northern Ireland and his declaration that he brought peace. The sick irony of this, after more than 30 years of violence, is being widely and mistakenly ignored. Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein were defeated. They got no more than they would have got if they had negotiated and accepted the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973/4. They did not bring peace. They failed to stop it. The achievement of peace in the North and for this island altogether was largely due to Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and the DUP.

It was they who conceded power-sharing. They did it on payment of a decommissioning deal.

McGuinness has not effectively assured us that this will never change. The only time he uses the word 'never' is when declaring the unchanging objectives of Sinn Fein. That was the real outcome of the crucial period in 2006-2007, in which Sinn Fein was made to concede.