McGuinness makes mark in Irish president poll

Thu Oct 27, 2011 5:39am EDT
Email This Article |
Share This Article
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
| Print This Article | Single Page
[-] Text [+]

By Carmel Crimmins and Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's presidential election on Thursday pitched a former guerrilla commander against a television reality show star and a politician turned poet.

Martin McGuinness, once a leading figure in the Irish Republican Army's (IRA) fight against British rule in Northern Ireland, was unlikely to win but by running he gave a fillip to his Sinn Fein party and its campaign for a united Ireland.

Analysts said the race was too close to call between independent candidate Sean Gallagher, a businessman who shot to fame through reality television, and poet and former culture minister Michael D. Higgins, who is a member of the coalition government's junior Labour Party partner.

But McGuinness's controversial candidacy shook up an initially dull race, prompting some government ministers to paint him as a villain and splitting opinion among voters.

"What they (IRA) did in the past was extremely bad but they have moved away from that. A win for McGuinness would cement those changes... We have to move on," Tom O'Connor, a 57-year-old psychotherapist, said after voting for McGuinness in central Dublin. "I think Sinn Fein have moved away from the margins. I hope if McGuinness loses, Sinn Fein will work to change the past and become more representative, more inclusive."

Once the political wing of the now-defunct IRA, Sinn Fein has always campaigned for a united Ireland but so far has only been able to make major political inroads in Northern Ireland.

Buoyed by public anger over the country's economic crisis that led to an EU/IMF bailout late last year, Sinn Fein tripled its seats to a record 14 in the Irish Republic's 166-seat lower parliament in a February election.

The only major party in the Irish Republic to oppose the EU/IMF-imposed austerity drive, Sinn Fein has capitalized on McGuinness's candidacy and became the second most popular party for the first time in a recent opinion poll.   Continued...

<p>Irish presidential candidate Martin McGuinness sits on a cart at the Ballinasloe Horse fair as he travels the country canvassing ahead of polling day in Ballinasloe, Ireland October 8, 2011. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton</p>