Ex-IRA guerrilla McGuinness to run for Irish president
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Martin McGuinness' journey from guerrilla commander to mainstream politician took a new turn on Friday when his Sinn Fein party said he would be put forward to run for president of the Republic of Ireland.
A hero among Catholics in Northern Ireland for helping to end three decades of sectarian bloodshed and give them an equal voice in a power-sharing government, McGuinness is a more controversial figure south of the border.
A keen chess player and shrewd political strategist, McGuinness will need all his wits and charm to win over the Republic's middle-classes, many of whom will baulk at voting for a man who once fought British soldiers in street battles.
He is currently deputy first minister in Northern Ireland's government.
"It's a game changer because this is now going to be a fascinating, dramatic and dirty election campaign," political analyst and barrister Noel Whelan said.
"Martin McGuinness is nationalist Northern Ireland's political hero but he's a very divisive figure in the Republic and Sinn Fein are a divisive political entity."
Left-wing Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the now defunct Irish Republican Army (IRA), has capitalised on anger in the Republic over its financial crisis.
In parliamentary elections in February, Sinn Fein more than tripled its number of seats to 14 in the 166 seat lower chamber to emerge as the Republic's second largest opposition party.
Once an organisation whose members were officially banned from speaking on Irish media until 1993, a victory for McGuiness in the October 27 poll would crown Sinn Fein's position in the Irish mainstream both north and south of the border.
While the role is chiefly ceremonial, Ireland's president has the right to refer legislation to the Supreme Court, presenting potential difficulties for Prime Minister Enda Kenny should McGuinness get elected.
Sinn Fein has been a staunch critic of Kenny's coalition government and its adherence to the tough fiscal targets under an EU-IMF bailout.
McGuinness' main rivals will be Gay Mitchell, candidate for Kenny's Fine Gael party and front-runner Michael D. Higgins who is representing the junior government Labour Party.
BUTCHER, GUERRILLA, PRISONER, POLITICIAN
McGuinness's selection as a Sinn Fein candidate will go for party approval on Sunday.
"I feel very honoured that I have been asked to stand for the Irish presidency," McGuinness told BBC television on Friday, during a visit to the United States.
Once McGuinness has sealed the nomination, he would temporarily stand down as deputy first minister, Sinn Fein said.
A former trainee butcher, McGuinness abandoned his apprenticeship in 1970 to join the IRA when the guerrilla group began its 30-year campaign against British rule, swiftly rising to become a senior commander.
He was briefly jailed in the Irish Republic in the 1970s for membership of the IRA. Fellow nationalist inmates recall him as a fierce football player in the exercise yard.
Along with party leader Gerry Adams, he was instrumental in transforming Sinn Fein into Northern Ireland's most powerful nationalist group and played a central role in talks leading to a 1998 peace deal that mostly ended the bloody period.
McGuinness spent years on the run. A devout Catholic, he is a keen fisherman and has written poetry.
His denunciation in 2009 of nationalist guerrillas as "traitors" for killing two British soldiers and a policeman earned him respect in the pro-British community in Northern Ireland but drew derision from some hardline former comrades.
McGuinness' commitment to peace will not, however, stop the Irish media from scrutinising his past. Irish presidential elections are notoriously unpleasant affairs.
Current president Mary McAleese, also a Catholic from Northern Ireland, made history in May when she welcomed Queen Elizabeth to Dublin, the first visit by a British monarch in nearly 100 years. Sinn Fein had said the trip was premature.
If McGuinness wins the presidential race he would preside over the centenary celebrations of Dublin's 1916 Rising, a failed attempt at revolution against British rule that proved the spark for a successful independence campaign.
(Additional reporting by Avril Ormsby in London Editing by Sophie Hares)
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