announced yesterday that he would take a few weeks off helping to run the North to run for the Irish Presidency, the media became rather excited. But it is unlikely that the Sinn Fein politician and former IRA commander will reach Aras an Uachtarain, the seat of the Irish president. Indeed, the real contest in Ireland is between two equally fascinating figures, whose prominence tells us more about the Republic today than Sinn Fein's canny bid to shore up its support south of the border.
For weeks, the Irish presidential contest has been taking the form of a national soap opera. First, there was the withdrawal of Senator David Norris, the Joycean scholar and gay rights campaigner, who was leading the race. He left after it emerged that he had defended a former partner in Israel who had been convicted of sex with a 15 year-old boy. What really killed his campaign was less the allegation than the resignation of campaign team members who felt betrayed as they hadn't been told about the story in advance. Norris is back in the running after popular feeling called for his return: hence an appearance on the Late Late Show, Ireland's long-running chat show, om Friday night. One Sunday paper has a straw poll this morning suggesting his lead has been regained.
While Norris was out of the running, the top spot was occupied by no less remarkable a figure, the Labour candidate, Michael D Higgins (pictured), a former culture minister, a poet and a prominent left-winger in the party, who in many ways projects as professorial a persona as Norris. Higgins was the minister who made Ireland safe and attractive for international film crews. Today's Sunday Independent poll, the scientific part conducted before the weekend announcements and Norris's reappearance, still has him as the clear frontrunner.
All this has left the two other main parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, in the part of also-rans. Fine Gael, at least, has a candidate in Gay Mitchell, a popular Dublin Dail deputy, but he has been running a distant second to Higgins until this weekend. Fianna Fail, the once-mighty party of DeValera, was humiliated in the general election earlier this year, and now has just 10pc of the vote. The party leader, Michael Martin, already facing humiliation in a by-election for what was the party's only Dublin seat, has wanted to sit the presidential poll out but has been defied by some in his surviving rump of a parliamentary party. Now there are suggestions that Fianna Fail parliamentarians should nominate Norris - he needs such nominations to stand - which would at least give the fairly traditionalist party a wholly different outlook. The social entrepreneur and head of the Irish special olympics, Mary Davis, an independent who has gained enough support to run, is the only woman definitely running this time.
In the past weeks, there have also been walk-on parts from Gay Byrne, the hugely self-regarding father of Irish television, who decided against running after a gratifyingly self-indulgent few days of speculation, and the right-wing Christian activist and Eurovision star, Dana Rosemary Scallon. There was a time when the Irish presidency was a retirement number for politicians, including DeValera, but more typically supremely boring figures like the late Patrick Hillery or Cearbhall O'Dalaigh. Mary Robinson's election in 1990 on a liberal feminist ticket changed all that, and her successor Mary McAleese helped solidify the sense of an office that was of national importance, albeit without much real power. McAleese's welcome for the Queen this year illustrated the proud dignity that she and Robinson brought to the office.
It is into this that Sinn Fein has sought to thrust Martin McGuinness, a man whose party officially boycotted the royal visit (aside from a brave mayor in Cashel), though he now generously tells us he would meet anyone if he were President. Few expect McGuinness to win, although the contest is, as we have seen, hugely volatile. But what it could achieve is a record Sinn Fein vote in the Republic, building on the 9.9% of the vote won in February. So, of course, Sinn Fein could take 15% with a McGuinness candidacy in a contest that is far more about personalities than it is about politics. However, support seems unlikely to go beyond that. Voters in the Republic are not always convinced of the credentials of their Northern brothers and sisters: when Fine Gael ran Austin Currie, a respected SDLP civil rights campaigner, in 1990, he was humiliated. And while Sinn Fein voters happily support IRA figures with strong Northern constituencies, especially in border areas, much of the party's support in cities like Dublin has owed more to their candidates' pavement politics than their Provo paramilitary past. The latter is also a turn-off to many middle ground voters, who may be happy to see McGuinness playing a prominent role in Stormont as the price for an end to the Troubles, but have no wish to see him having equal prominence in the south.
So, Sinn Fein may successfully shore up its vote and get a bit of extra publicity. But, at what price? To McGuinesss's credit, he has established an excellent working relationship with Peter Robinson, the DUP first minister at Stormont. While a caretaker Sinn Fein minister can act as locum as McGuinness canvasses in the South, the ripples from any controversies in that campaign can only destabilise their working partnership, and that is not good for the Northern power-sharing executive. It is inconceivable that there will not be considerable attention paid to McGuinness's IRA role and to any deaths associated with his time in its leadership. With sectarian tensions rising again over the summer, the last thing Northern Ireland needs is another opportunity to rake over the past in this way.
In the end, Higgins or Norris looks likely to become president. And their ability to do so will tell us as much about Ireland today as the decision of McGuinness to run for the Aras.
This post has been highlighted by Slugger O'Toole and Alex Massie on his Spectator blog.