Tipperary GAA County Board Chairman Barry O’Brien, who is a former Fianna Fail by-election candidate and councillor, was among the first to welcome Sinn Fein presidential candidate Martin McGuinness when he arrived in Cashel last Thursday for a campaign canvas of the town.
Sporting a Martin McGuinness campaign sticker on his lapel, Mr O’Brien greeted Mr McGuinness as he dismounted from his presidential campaign tour bus at the fountain on Main Street and accompanied the Sinn Fein leader as he met and greeted voters during his hour and a half long walkabout of the town centre.
“Fianna Fail haven’t a candidate in the field. I am a person who believes in democracy and I wanted to support some candidate. I think he is the only candidate of substance in the field,” Mr O’Brien told The Nationalist.
“I believe he is the only one that is doing anything for the country. He put himself through a lot of turmoil in his life and made an enormous contribution to the Peace Process and I would be delighted to urge anyone to vote for him.”
On the concerns raised about McGuinness’ IRA past and the IRA’s murder of gardai and soldiers here in the Republic during Troubles, Mr O’Brien said people in this country had short memories about their history.
“Going back 100 years every politician and party was involved in uprising. We should encourage people to get involved in politics and he has taken the road of politics. I think people who talk about politicians having blood on their hands have short memories since all our political parties were involved in some way in revolution.”
For Mr McGuinness, there was no avoiding the questions about his IRA past during his visit to Cashel.
That day, the family of the late Det. Gda. Jerry McCabe issued a statement alleging Mr McGuinness met with Kevin Walsh, one of the IRA men convicted of the garda’s killing, while he was still on the run, and that he was aware of the whereabouts of two named IRA members still being sought for her husband’s murder.
Questioned by media on this issue during the canvas, Mr McGuiness said there wasn’t a smidgeon of truth that he met Walsh after McCabe’s killing and he insisted he knew absolutely nothing about his whereabouts at that time. He also insisted he didn’t know the whereabouts of the two men the Gardai are still seeking in connection with Gda McCabe’s killing and insisted he didn’t even know who they were.
He reitereated his “unreserved” condemnation of Gda. McCabe’s killing. “My heart goes out to the McCabe family. It was unjustifiable what happened him. I have two cousins in the Gardai and under no circumstances would I support attacks on gardai or Defence Forces,” he said.
McGuinness was naturally more keen to emphasise his role in the Peace Process. He spoke of his plans with Peter Robinson to set up a centre for reconcilliation on the site of Long Kesh Prison and declared that if elected president of Ireland he would have a decade of reconcilliation.
Given that the late Cashel Sinn Fein Cllr Michael Browne was criticised by his party for welcoming Queen Elizabeth 11 as the town’s Mayor when she visited the Rock of Cashel, Mr McGuinness was asked was it not hypocritical of him now to say he would meet the Queen if elected President of Ireland. “I wouldn’t be a Sinn Fein President of Ireland, I would be a president for all of the people of Ireland,” he responded. “Sinn Fein took their own decision, they had to deal with an awful lot of grief that was inflicted on the nationalist community in the North as a result of the actions of regiments of the British Army, for example in Derry where I had lot of friends who lost loved ones on Bloody Sunday. Standing for the presidency allows me the freedom to deal with the situation and I want to assure the Irish people I would be prepared to meet the Queen.
Mr McGuinness received a very positive reception during his walkabout in Cashel meeting and greeting everyone from mothers with babies to priests and a group of teenagers, with whom he expressed a desire for the voting age to be reduced to 16.
He shook hands with former Tipperary hurling star Pat Fox outside his pub, talked to him about the recent All-Ireland final and asked him how many All-Ireland medals he had under his belt.
He greeted local Sinn Fein supporters, had his photo taken with relatives of War of Independence IRA leader Sean Treacy, visited the home of Nellie Ryan at Abbey House on Dominic Street where he did an interview with Tipp FM and greeted Bernard Minogue at Cashel Folk Village.
Rockwell College teacher Niall McGonagle, who is based in Thurles, greeted McGuinness by telling him he was a fellow northerner from Strabane.
He told The Nationalist he came from a SDLP background but was considering voting for McGuinness in the presidential election.
“He has done good work up there. Years ago it was maybe a different story but now I have seen what he has done in the North.”
His visit to Cashel ended at Halla na Feile where he did an interview on Tipp Midwest Radio, met students from Cashel Community College rehearsing for their school musical “Me And My Girl” before hopping back on the campaign bus bound for Dublin.
Former Mayor of Cashel Tom Wood, who was shopping in Cashel while the McGuinness campaign swept through town, said if he had met McGuinness he would have told him how disappointed he was with Sinn Fein’s policy of refusing to meet Queen Elizabeth 11 during her recent State. He believed it just suited him now to say he would meet the Queen because he was running for president.