Ireland’s historic vote on the presidential ambitions of Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness’ candidacy for the Irish Presidency calls for voters to look to the country’s history. EPA/Paul McErlane

The critical importance of the Irish presidency was underscored by current incumbent in an address to the Global Irish Economic Forum earlier this month. President Mary MacAleese welcomed 270 delegates drawn from 37 nations to “a gathering that makes sense of and gives perspective to the dispersal and scattering of our family over many generations.”

Her tenure was underpinned by an emphasis on breaking down barriers within and between political communities on both parts of the island. She argued Ireland must transcend its history by refashioning the political, economic and cultural narrative.

“We are very proud of our lavish and sophisticated cultural reservoir, so ancient on the one hand and yet such a dynamic and evergreen part of the present,” she said. This dynamism “turned around almost a millennium of baleful conflict ridden history and opened us up to a peaceful future underpinned by a robust architecture of shared structures and mutually acknowledged rights and responsibilities.”

Economic renewal

The failure to attend to broader purpose of governance has led the country to the precipice of ruin.

Notwithstanding a weak facsimile of the Occupy Wall Street protests outside the Central Bank headquarters in Dublin, the mood in Ireland itself is one of stoical acceptance; dynamism replaced by clinical depression.

The challenge to reinvigorate the narrative is profound. Delegates were reminded they were invited so that policymakers could “rack your brains individually and collectively, to harness your input as we redeem our current economic narrative by creating new opportunities for trade, investment and employment.”

Shared vision

The sheer size and power of the Irish diaspora reflects ongoing failure rather than success.

Dealing with the pain of separation and loss is not merely a historical debate. It is a pressing contemporary reality.

This, in turn, requires more than short-term economic solutions. It requires the building of a shared vision for the country that is then reflected in the persona of the president.

The paradox is that two of the leading candidates to succeed President MacAleese in an election on 27 October are constrained by personal histories that elevate evasion over honest reflection.

Questionable past

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, the erstwhile Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive, is standing as an independent “down here.” He is unable to give the Irish Republic its full name. He refers instead to the need to integrate the failings of the “twenty-six counties” to the success of the northern experiment.

The peace process was built on and continues to thrive on creative ambiguity to questions of personal past complicity in political violence.

His presidential campaign is not simply a retrospective justification of the IRA.

Much more significantly, it is a refutation of the institutionalisation of the twenty-six county state as the nation.

100 years on

The centennial roll call of pivotal events that gave rise to partition is deeply problematic. The arming of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The signing of the Ulster Covenant. The disintegration of the Home Rule movement. The outbreak of the Great War. The Easter Rising and the execution of its leaders. The War of Independence and the resulting Civil War.

All of these anniversaries fall within the new presidential term. How each is to commemorated and the role to be played by the presidency remain undecided.

Critically, they make McGuinness an exceptionally divisive candidate. They also highlight the unresolved nature of the peace process itself.

Celebrity candidate

Another faux independent is Sean Gallagher, a former National Executive member of Fianna Fail, the erstwhile dominant political force in the Irish Republic.

The party was decimated because of its stewardship as the ship of state crashed on the rocks of economic hubris.

Gallagher, however, is coy about his past affiliation. He prefers to emphasise his role in creating jobs. His core qualification, beyond extremely small-scale job creation initiatives underpinned by government grants, is his role as a judge on a reality show for budding entrepreneurs.

If the McGuinness campaign is about reclaiming history the Gallagher campaign is about denying its very existence.

Compromise candidate

This then leaves the third major credible candidate, Michael D Higgins of the Labour Party. His knowledge of and respect for the institutions of Irish political and cultural life, including his fluency in the Irish language, make him a clear compromise candidate.

He is most capable of garnering the transfers of defeated candidates. At 70, Higgins is, however, constrained by the perception that this is a job to supplement his pension.

The failure of Labour to date to transcend the historical dominance of the national question is also a potential block.

Voting on the past

The current administration, led by Fine Gael, traces its history to the Civil War. It differentiates itself from Fianna Fail less on substantive contemporary grounds than on historical divisions.

Its candidate, Gay Mitchell, has failed to enliven the debate. According to the opinion polls he and his party is likely to be humiliated.

The importance of the election pivots on whether ongoing national depression will result in the denial of the past or the elevation of ignorance about it.

Neither option is appealing. The task of building a new social compact informed by what constitutes Irish core values has only just begun.

The tragedy for Ireland is that President MacAleese will not be there to see it through.