Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein is to enter this year's election for the presidency of the Republic of Ireland, the party announced last night, sending a frisson through Irish politics.
The move is expected to dramatically enliven a race for the presidency which has so far attracted attention mostly for a sizeable controversy over a gay independent candidate's past behaviour.
Mr McGuinness, a one-time IRA commander who has risen to the senior ranks of politics in Northern Ireland, will automatically become the most high-profile runner in an otherwise fairly dull field. Sinn Fein hopes he will register a respectable showing for a party which has recently hugely increased its support in the Irish Republic.
The 14 seats it won in the Irish parliament in this year's general election mean that it is now the Republic's fourth-largest party. Mr McGuinness's move follows the electoral success of the Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams who, moving across the border from Belfast for the election, notched up one of the country's largest personal votes.
The election result will be tricky to forecast since Fianna Fail, traditionally the South's largest party, was decimated in the general election and has been in turmoil ever since. Its result was so poor that for the first time in living memory it is not running a presidential candidate, fearing humiliation. Sinn Fein will hope to collect support from many one-time Fianna Fail supporters.
The party opposes almost all of the severe cuts which the Irish government has committed itself to in return for the country's European bail-out.
During the campaign, Mr McGuinness is to temporarily step aside from his post as Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, where his party takes 27 per cent of the vote. This is just three per cent behind the loyalist Democratic Unionist party.
The Irish presidency was traditionally a purely symbolic office. But outgoing President Mary McAleese greatly increased its influence, most recently by engineering this year's successful visit to Ireland by the Queen.
Mr Adams said last night: "I believe this election will give Martin the platform to continue the work he has led in the North and in the peace process and to put it on a national footing. I believe he can be the people's President."
He said that if elected, Mr McGuinness would draw the average industrial wage and "dedicate himself to a genuine national reconciliation".
McGuinness: From IRA leader to presidential hopeful
1970 Joined Provisional IRA at the age of 20
1971 Went on the run when internment without trial was introduced
1972 Was second in command of IRA in Derry City at the time of Bloody Sunday
1972 Travelled with other IRA leaders to London for talks with a British government minister
1970s Served a short jail term in the Irish Republic for IRA membership
1997 Elected Westminster MP for Mid-Ulster
2007 Elected Deputy First Minister, serving first with the Reverend Ian Paisley, later with Peter RobinsonReuse content