McGuinness 'prepared to host Queen' if elected

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Martin McGuinness would be willing to host the Queen if he were to become Irish President, Sinn Fein's surprise candidate for the state's top office has signalled.

Republicans have always avoided attending royal engagements despite holding senior government roles in Northern Ireland.

But Mr McGuinness said if he became President of Ireland he would be willing to meet all international guests, without exception.

Sinn Fein stunned Irish political circles yesterday by announcing that the former IRA leader, who has become a champion of the peace process, was to be its candidate.

In his first comments since returning to Ireland from a US trade mission, the Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister said he was also ready to tackle questions about the IRA during the campaign.

But he said he believed he had played a key role in ending the decades of violence and wanted to look to a new future.

On the prospect of meeting British royalty if he was to become Ireland's figurehead, he said: "If the people of Ireland decided that I should be their president, my responsibilities and duties would be to meet heads of state from all over the world and to do that without exception, and that would be my position."

Opponents have already said his former IRA role could become a roadblock and could spark campaign debates that risked upsetting victims of republican violence.

"I hope it does not," he said.

"No doubt there will be people within the media, particularly the hostile media, who will attempt to do just that."

Mr McGuinness said the same prospect had faced his party leader, Gerry Adams, when he moved into politics in the Republic, but it had not prevented him winning a seat in the General Election.

The Derry republican also said former prime minister Tony Blair was among the figures who had conceded the role of British governments in the Troubles.

"It was very big of him to say during the course of many negotiations that he believed that successive British governments were as responsible for what happened in the North as anybody else."

The Sinn Fein figure added: "The past is a terrible place but I think I am seen very much as a part of the future."

Mr McGuinness had just landed at Belfast's international airport having completed a US investment trip with Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson.

Sinn Fein yesterday confirmed the decision to put him forward as a candidate.

Mr McGuinness said the plan was only finalised in the last week.

He said he had considered the proposal while he was in the US, before confirming to Mr Adams that he was prepared to stand.

The decision is already being billed as the republican movement's most audacious political move since IRA prisoner Bobby Sands was elected an MP while on prison hunger strike in 1981.

It is understood party strategists believe that taking part in the campaign ahead of the October polling day will help raise the profile of Sinn Fein, regardless of the result, at a time when it wants to build on its gains south of the Irish border.

But Mr McGuinness said he believed he had the potential to offer something fresh in the campaign, while the prospect of becoming president could also build on the success of the peace process.

Asked if he could win, he said: "That remains to be seen. I will leave that to the people of Ireland."

His candidacy is to be formally endorsed by his party tomorrow at a top-level meeting in Dublin.

Mr McGuinness added: "If endorsed, I intend to stand on a very broad, progressive platform.

"I intend to build on the progress that has been made within the peace process.

"And most importantly of all, I hope that this gives an opportunity to Irish citizens to make a stand for a new beginning, for a new Ireland.

"I have been at the heart of many new beginnings in the North over the course of recent years.

"And that's how I see it (the election). This is a real opportunity for a new beginning."

Independents Mary Davis and Sean Gallagher officially became candidates on Monday after each secured the necessary support.

They are on course to fight it out with front-runner Michael D Higgins, of Labour, and Fine Gael's Gay Mitchell.

Senator David Norris used a TV interview last night to say that he would like to re-enter the race, having previously dropped out.