“Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.”
Pink Floyd, “Wish You Were Here”.
Such was the initial muted reaction to his candidacy, it’s as if the papers couldn’t believe that Sinn Féin would have the audacity to nominate Martin McGuinness for the presidency.
The Sunday papers came and went without much comment, but as the week wore on his opponents became more and more vocal.
The latest to question the Sinn Féin candidate’s suitability for the Aras is none other than Gay Byrne, whose rampant ego almost led him into a campaign backed by a Fianna Fáil party that bankrupted the country.
Byrne, like many others, asked the simple – and simplistic – question; how could a former terrorist with blood on his hands be our president?
The fact that Eamon de Valera was sentenced to death for his part in the 1916 Rising seems to have been forgotten.
There is not a shadow of a doubt that McGuinness was heavily involved in the IRA at a time when it was carrying out some of the worst atrocities in the history of our islands, but he is not alone.
There are plenty of other democrats guilty of war crimes still roaming the free world, many of them still in office.
But that was a different time and place. Is he likely to pick up a gun again in the near future? Hardly.
However distasteful we find it, the truth is that at certain times in history, the honest, supine law-abiding citizen has a need for men like McGuinness – the tough guys who operate in a moral grey area well beyond our own comfort zone.
The sort of men who kill people and bury them in shallow graves without a fair trial.
The sort of men who make other men drive bombs into barracks before blowing them up.
The sort of men that prime ministers declare in public that they will never negotiate with, all the while inviting them in by the back door.
Though there are undoubtedly people on both sides of the paramilitary divide that enjoyed killing for the sake of it, I’d doubt McGuinness is one of them.
At the time of the civil rights marches, many in the Republic had already abandoned the nationalist community in the north to their fate , and if there is one thing that my dealings with our cousins in the north has taught me, it is that we in the south have little or no understanding of what it was like to live there in the darkest days of the Troubles.
We’ve had our fleeting experiences of bombs on Talbot Street and army checkpoints and armed Gardaí as the IRA and the INLA robbed banks and took hostages. We didn’t care for it much.
We also failed to notice that this was what life as like in the north for the best part of thirty years, with one exception- the security forces in the north were particularly hostile to one section of the community they were tasked with protecting.
Given our limited experience and our limited attempts to understand and assist, we are in no position to pontificate either way.
McGuinness has come a long way since his days of running around Derry with a gun. The same cannot be said for the rest of us, especially in the south.
Would he be my choice as president? Probably not, but part of the peace dividend for both sides is that Sinn Féin and the IRA would only engage in peaceful democratic means in the future, and this is what McGuinness seeks to do in running for election as our president.
The candidacy of McGuinness is not Sinn Féin’s reward for embracing democracy – it is our reward for allowing them to come in from the cold. Let’s not push them out again.