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Issue #1520      28 September 2011

Sinn Fein candidate for Irish presidency

At Sinn Fein’s annual conference on September 9-10, change was in the wind. The location was Belfast in Northern Ireland, a prominent Protestant pastor addressed the gathering, and the assembly decided upon a Sinn Fein candidate running for president of Ireland - all for the first time.

Elections are set for October 27. Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland now constitutes the main opposition to the region’s dominant Democratic Unionist party, which represents the majority Protestant population.

The conference named as candidate Martin McGuiness, who presently serves as deputy first minister in Northern Ireland’s multi-party government. McGuiness has since 1982 ranked second to President Gerry Adams within Sinn Fein’s leadership. Media reports emphasise his paramilitary role in Northern Ireland’s civil war during the 1970s in Derry. He was second in command there of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. McGuiness served afterwards as the chief Sinn Fein negotiator during the long Northern Ireland peace process.

The final decision on his candidacy came a week later at a meeting of top Sinn Fein leaders in Dublin. During that week four independent members of the Irish parliament came out in favour of McGuiness’s candidacy, thus providing him with support from more than 20 parliamentary delegates, as required by the constitution. Currently 17 Sinn Fein delegates serve in the 166-seat Irish parliament.

Despite his history of long struggle, McGuiness is well known for close friendships with antagonists. Democratic Unionist first minister Peter Robinson, who serves with McGuiness on the Assembly Executive Committee in Northern Ireland, is one friend. Another is influential cleric David Latimer, who spoke at the Sinn Fein conference.

Shortly after McGuiness’s candidacy was announced, Sinn Fein parliamentary delegate Conor Murphy called upon the Irish government to change Ireland’s constitution to allow Northern Irish citizens to vote in Irish presidential elections. Ireland’s current president Mary McAleese, elected in 1997 and finishing her second term, also resides in Northern Ireland.

Presently Sinn Fein controls 29 seats in the 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly, second to the DU’s 38. Sinn Fein has advanced electorally in the republic, earlier this year gaining its highest representation yet in Parliament. With nine percent of the popular vote, Sinn Fein became the Irish Republic’s third largest party.

During early parts of its 100-year history, Sinn Fein espoused Irish nationalism and independence from Britain. From the formation of Northern Ireland in 1921 on, Sinn Fein led in the struggle for Irish unification. Since its entry into electoral politics in the 1980s, the party has advocated for minority rights and universal access to social services, particularly in the areas of schools, pensions, and health care. Sinn Fein consequently has taken on a democratic socialist identification.

Nevertheless, some leftists are wary. From the results of parliamentary elections earlier this year, the Communist Party of Ireland, for example, diagnoses a compromising tendency. In Dublin, says the CP, Sinn Fein’s parliamentary delegates protest cuts to social services ordered by international bankers, but in Northern Ireland the party accepts British government cuts. Sinn Fein’s record on entering coalitions with centre-right parties is seen as inconsistent. However, “the growth of Sinn Fein is welcome,” says the CP’s Socialist Voice periodical; “It’s another progression away from civil war politics.”

In the presidential elections, Sinn Fein is expected to attract voters formerly attached to the Fianna Fáil party, which, beaten in the parliamentary elections, is not running a presidential candidate. Candidate Martin McGuiness will probably place third behind candidates of the left-centre Labor Party and of the centre-right Fine Gael party.

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