A former Irish Republican Army commander, Martin McGuinness, announced Sunday he is running for president of Ireland _ and faced immediate questions about his murky IRA past.
McGuinness, deputy leader of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party, said he planned to quit Monday as the senior Catholic in Northern Ireland's unity government and launch his election campaign in the neighboring Republic of Ireland.
The 61-year-old McGuinness expressed confidence that his decision would not destabilize power-sharing, the central accomplishment of the Northern Ireland peace process.
The Oct. 27 Irish election will decide who will succeed President Mary McAleese as Ireland's symbolic head of state, a ceremonial post she has held since 1997. Sinn Fein, long a fringe player in southern Irish politics, is seeking to become the major opposition party. McGuinness is easily the most high-profile name in a field of a half-dozen candidates.
McGuinness pledged to campaign on his "record as a peacemaker, as someone who has transformed the political situation in the north, and as someone who loves Ireland."
He has won plaudits for his conciliatory role atop the 4-year-old coalition government in Northern Ireland, a British territory that the IRA long sought to overthrow by force. Power-sharing between Northern Ireland's British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority was underpinned by the IRA's 2005 decisions to disarm and renounce violence.
But McGuinness also has never come clean about his role directing an IRA campaign that killed nearly 1,800 people and maimed thousands more. At times he has flatly denied IRA membership, while in 2003 he testified to a British fact-finding tribunal that he quit the IRA in the early 1970s, a claim widely dismissed as implausible.
McGuinness took part in secret 1972 negotiations between IRA commanders and the British government. The following year he was arrested in the Republic of Ireland in a car containing explosives and ammunition and convicted of IRA membership. He declared from the dock that he was proud to be an IRA member.
Independent historians of the Sinn Fein-IRA movement say McGuinness served on the IRA's senior command from around 1975 to 2005, when the IRA declared it was going out of business. Several IRA splinter groups continue to plot bomb and gun attacks and denounce McGuinness as a traitor to their cause.
McGuinness deflected a series of questions Sunday over whether he would declare his IRA resume as part of his presidential bid.
He said he had explained his IRA career in his 2003 testimony. "I have never hidden my role within the IRA," he said.
Referring to the IRA splinter groups, he said, "There are microscopic groups in the north that would like to drag us back to the past. But I'm someone who lives in the here and now, for the future, who wants to build a better future for all of the young people who live on this island."
Residents of Northern Ireland can hold either Irish or British citizenship. The Catholic minority overwhelmingly has Irish allegiance.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams also left the Northern Ireland political scene earlier this year and now represents a border Irish district in the Irish parliament.
And the incumbent president, McAleese, is also a Catholic from Northern Ireland.