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Martin McGuinness says he never killed anyone during his years — however many years it was — in the IRA.That’s as may be. But this week he certainly delivered a killer blow to the presidential hopes of one Sean Gallagher. In a Dublin TV studio, in the last major debate of the campaign, McGuinness launched a precision attack on the then-frontrunner, Gallagher, telling a story that had been brought to his attention about Gallagher’s fundraising for the discredited Fianna Fail party. The image of the ‘independent’ Gallagher, who had denied a central role in party affairs, visiting a businessman’s house to collect an envelope for Fianna Fail was enough to cost him any hope of winning the election.
As is so often the case with negative campaigning, McGuinness wasn’t the immediate beneficiary himself: Labour candidate Michael D. Higgins will be Ireland’s next president. But, true to his prolonged leadership role in the Provisional republican movement, McGuinness was taking the long view. For his Sinn Fein party, it was more important to quell a possible resurgence of Fianna Fail, even with that party wearing a Gallagher guise. Sinn Fein covets the clear leadership of anti-government populism here: a Fianna Fail-ish president would be ‘merely’ symbolic, but symbolic of the resilience of that party’s position in the national political culture.
Sean Gallagher, even in defeat, was the surprise phenomenon of this campaign. If the election was, as commentators kept saying, a sort of reality-TV show, then Gallagher was best placed to win it. He may or may not be a genuinely successful businessman, but he certainly plays one on TV, as one of the would-be investors in contestants’ business ideas on a show called Dragons’ Den. For weeks he did a remarkably successful job in projecting himself as the can-do spirit of Ireland, until McGuinness laid him low less than 72 hours before the polls opened.
Despite the clear importance for the last two Irish presidencies of what they stood for — Mary Robinson as a human-rights lawyer, Mary McAleese as a Northern Irish nationalist — the media here insisted that the election was about choosing a candidate based not upon what sort of signifier they would present to the world, but on his or her ‘character’. This meant all sorts of personal history and foibles were up for grabs, and the campaign was the uglier for it. McGuinness was repeatedly called a murderer for his role in the IRA, and the fact that he has nonetheless run a strong third (out of seven candidates) in this election is quite striking in this context.
The Irish people appear to have understood in a way that the media refused to do this simple fact: thousands of decent men and women joined the IRA in war, often for good reasons; only a few were able to lead the IRA, substantially un-split, into peace. McGuinness’s precise role in the peace process is worthy of debate, but his importance is not open to dispute.
Journalists who were socialised during the ‘Troubles’ found themselves reflexively demonising McGuinness, despite his status as deputy prime minister in the government of Northern Ireland. The electorate at least partly repudiated that sort of shadow-of-a-gunman caricature.
There was no mistaking that the eventual winner, Labour’s Michael D. Higgins, was the favored candidate for much of the media class. Pundits’ initial attempts to go after Gallagher because he had been — Aha! — a member of Fianna Fail clearly backfired, propelling the plain-spoken Mussolini lookalike into surprise leadership in the polls. Until just a few years ago, Fianna Fail commanded the support of some 40 per cent of voters, and those voters were clearly disinclined to regard such party membership as a political crime. He was fatally damaged only when it became clear in the final week or two of the campaign, and especially after the McGuinness ambush, that Gallagher had resided close to the centre of the corporate-political nexus, that he was less an entrepreneur than a ‘player’, not so much ‘self-made’ as a creature of patronage.
Gallagher may yet emerge as a political force inside or outside of Fianna Fail, which didn’t run an official presidential candidate but performed credibly in a local by-election also held on Thursday. Indeed in that Dublin West by-election Fianna Fail got more than double the vote of Sinn Fein, highlighting why McGuinness needed to see off the Gallagher threat.
Labour, which at the time of writing looks likely to win that by-election, had a good day. The soft sort-of-social-democratic party has yet to suffer politically for being in government with right-wing Fine Gael. The electorate is still ready to blame the previous government rather than the present one, voted in earlier this year, for the trials of recession, austerity and multi-billion euro payments to bondholders in failed Irish banks. (For more background, see my election preview article here.)
The new president, Michael D. Higgins, is a poet-philosopher who has generally managed to appear semi-detached from the Labour party leadership and all its compromises. He is highly unlikely to do or say anything of importance in his largely symbolic role, for which he will reside in the old British vice-regal residence in the Phoenix Park. The most interesting aspect of his election is that he owes it, or at least its margin, to Martin McGuinness.
The main government party, Fine Gael, took a beating in both the presidential race and the by-election. This is somewhat heartening, since now the Irish people can ditch the distraction of the presidential campaign and concentrate on putting the government under pressure. This week’s latest Greek ‘rescue plan’ may do little for Greece or the euro, but here it highlights the fact that Ireland, unlike Greece, is still paying 100 cents on the dollar to the lucky bondholders in its broken banks. With the Occupy movement still in place despite torrential rains in several Irish cities, this country’s austerity-crazed elite may at last be facing a winter of discontent.
HARRY BROWNE lectures in journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology. He is the author of Hammered By the Irish, published by CounterPunch / AK Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com. Twitter: @harrybrowne