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IRA Leader Martin McGuinness May Become President of Ireland

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Martin McGuinness was once a very senior commander in the Provisional IRA and now could become president of Ireland.

His entry last week into the campaign has transformed a sleepy race for Ireland's top constitutional job and head of state into a hotly contested race.

The joke going around is that McGuinness would be the first Irish person to ever command two armies, the IRA and the army of the Irish Republic.

But the established political parties are not joking.

The McGuinness entry into the contest signals a new phase in Irish politics, one that could dramatically change the skyline for ever.

Currently, Sinn Fein are the third largest party in the Irish Republic and largest in Northern Ireland. If McGuinness were to win the race it would catapult his party into the main opposition power to Fine Gael which heads the government.

Harsh economic times has obliterated Fianna Fail, the party which governed Ireland for most of its independence.

They were universally blamed for the economic crash and it appears highly unlikely they will rise again.

A measure of how far they have fallen is that they are not even contesting the presidency, an office they held in every election except one.

Their demise has afforded a huge gap for Sinn Fein. The selection of McGuinness was unexpected. He has been Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland for several years, a linchpin in the successful peace process there who found a way to work with the Reverend Ian Paisley and his successor, Peter Robinson, form the Democratic Unionist Party who were once utterly opposed to him.

Running in the Republic is a calculated risk. The memories of the IRA campaign are still fresh and he has been roundly attacked for essentially admitting his paramilitary past.

But he is no different from any other guerrilla who adopted peace, such as Mandela and Ireland's former president and father of the nation Eamon De Valera, himself a former IRA leader, when he ran for office.

McGuinness is also a cut above the other politicians in the race, who are mostly second tier figures in their own parties.

No one would ever accuse McGuinness of that. He played a massive role in getting the IRA to set aside their weapons, then in Sinn Fein's peace strategy which brought them to power.

If he wins it will be a revolution in Irish politics and the wheels will have come full circle. Sinn Fein were once the dominant Irish party; way back in 1918 they won a majority of seats in an All Ireland election.

After that came the War of Independence and splits and a very nasty civil war and Sinn Fein faded.

Now, almost a hundred years later they are back, led by McGuinness and Gerry Adams.

If they win the presidency it will send shockwaves through the Irish political system for decades to come.

Thus, the election on October 27th will be closely watched on all sides.

A win for McGuinness will trumpet a new era, scarcely imaginable a few years ago.