A feature of the current Irish Presidential campaign has been the emergence of a body of opinion that has homed in on what it regards as a brand of hypocrisy in the South of the country. The latter it is said manifests, even prides itself in a willingness to have Martin McGuinness occupy a position of political authority in the North while simultaneously holding its nose at the prospect of something similar in the South. While certainly not alone in subscribing to this critical perspective the writer Jude Collins tersely caught its main theme:
There is no rational line that can be argued which says that McGuinness is fine 'up there' but a deadly danger 'down here'. Except, of course, you're a southern partitionist who is scared witless at the way the North has begun to play an increasing part in the public life of the south.
Setting aside the expansionist overtone in such commentary, it is plausible to contend that in the South, not vastly different from the North in this regard, hypocrisy is moved in skips rather than brown envelopes, it being so bulky and voluminous. But it is far from certain that the attitude towards McGuinness is informed by hypocrisy alone.
That the North is considered a special case where the conventional political norms do not apply is no more the property of ‘southern partitionists’ than the general containing of IRA political violence to the North was the property of northern partitionists.
There are some things in the North that are not wanted in the South with good reason, which the people there have every right to resile from and seek protection against. While the argument should not be made that Martin McGuinness is one of those things, he having the same right as any other Irish person over the age of 35 to enter the presidential race, there is insufficient cause to reduce this to a mentality born of partition. It might be nothing other than the manifestation of democratic sentiment. There is no reason why the South should not be inoculated against the peculiarly Northern virus of government without opposition. Why would anybody in the South other than the authoritarian (and there may be many) want a political system devoid of political opposition?
Perhaps there is a need to draw a distinction between the past of Martin McGuiness and his political experience. Whatever about his leadership of the IRA post-1974, his potential to be a president of national unity is attenuated by his experience. As Deputy First Minister in the Belfast Executive he is the product of an exceptional type of circumstance, peculiar to the North but not to the country as a whole. He is not a unifying presidential-style figure in Northern society but rather is a functioning symbol of its inherently divided character and composition. He is part of a ruling bloc defined by the imperatives of office which require: that the ruling bloc administratively but not politically unites itself; that structurally, aided by D’Hondt, it reproduces the fundamental sectarian disunity within society; that it stabilises and polices at community level that societal division; and that it mediates the relationship between that fractious society and itself. There is nothing new here about how ruling blocs rule. Nicos Poulantzas identified it over forty years ago.
Martin McGuinness is not in senior office in the North because unionists have acclimatised, or are forgiving of his IRA past. They remain even more hostile to that aspect of his character than most in the South. They acquiesce in rather than approve of his role in the executive. As I argued in London 3 years ago, in the North there is parsimonious power splitting rather than generous power sharing. Martin McGuinness is in office because the cost of him not being there is too high. As Fintan O’Toole observed: ‘The DUP had to accept Sinn Fein and its nominee because otherwise the DUP itself could not have entered government - there would be no government for it to enter.’
There is no denying that Martin McGuinness was central to ending the IRA’s campaign and creating the political climate that allowed the emergence and bedding down of the Northern executive. Nevertheless, none of what has been secured in the North resulted from Martin McGuinness standing as an overarching, inspiring, presidential Leviathan trafficking unity into those regions where division is most prevalent. His function is more akin to that of a tribal chieftain managing his fiefdom while simultaneously competing and liaising with his opposite number in the rival fiefdom. His achievement has been to manage division within the North not unite society there. His political experience lies in division not unifying.
He has as much right to stand in the Irish Presidential election as any of the other six candidates. But no amount of special pleading on his behalf allows an advantage to fall his way and not theirs in terms of what he can do to unify the whole of Irish society based on his experience in the North.