By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Whether Martin McGuinness completes his journey from guerrilla commander to Ireland's president or not, his Sinn Fein party has scored a major coup just by putting the ex-Irish Republican Army (IRA) man forward for next week's poll.
The only major party in the Republic of Ireland to oppose an EU-IMF-endorsed austerity drive, Sinn Fein has capitalised on McGuinness's controversial candidacy by becoming the second most popular party for the first time, according to opinion polls.
The political wing of the now-defunct IRA, Sinn Fein members officially were banned from speaking on Irish media until 1993 and until recently were viewed as political pariahs.
But buoyed by popular anger over the country's financial crisis, Sinn Fein tripled its seats to a record 14 in the Republic's 166-seat lower chamber after elections in February.
Temporarily parachuting McGuinness south from his role as Northern Ireland's deputy first minister has further raised the possibility that Sinn Fein could one day replicate its success north of the border where the party shares power.
"I think it (putting McGuinness forward) is a shrewd move and it's establishing them in the longer term in the Republic," Theresa Reidy, a politics lecturer at University College Cork (UCC), said.
"Sinn Fein play a much more long-term game than all of the other political parties. While one political party is looking at two to three years, they are looking at 10 to 15."
"The very fact that they have a candidate in the race and that he is a serious challenger, that will be all they want to achieve. If they replicate their election vote and maybe add on a few percent, they will view that as a success."
McGuinness's support stands at 13 percent according to the most recent opinion poll, down from a high of 19 percent and some way behind the two front runners but up on the 10 percent Sinn Fein commanded in February's parliamentary elections.
However the decision to run the guerrilla-commander-turned- peacemaker seems particularly calculated given that Fianna Fail, southern Ireland's traditional republican party, opted not to nominate a candidate after its spectacular fall from power at the hands of an angry electorate.
UCC's Reidy said many Fianna Fail voters who turned to Sinn Fein in February will likely develop a habit for doing so after next week's poll and with a clearer succession plan -- Sinn Fein is pushing forward an impressive crop of young MPs -- it is well placed to cement a place as the main opposition party.
Sinn Fein's ambitions of entering government, in the medium term at least, would require an unlikely coalition with a mainstream party but then Sinn Fein could point to Northern Ireland's assembly where it has ruled with former bitter rivals the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for four years.
However the prospect of Sinn Fein, a mainly Catholic party dedicated to the unification of Ireland, holding the presidency or making gains does not sit well with the predominantly Protestant DUP, which is set on Northern Ireland remaining in a political union with Britain.
"I would be worried that if he did win the presidency it might mess things up here and that it would reignite the push by republicans for a united Ireland -- that's just a recipe for more of what we went through for decades," William Stewart, a 52-year-old Protestant, who voted DUP in the last election, told Reuters in north Belfast.
BUNCH OF HYPOCRITES
As the political face of the IRA, Sinn Fein played a central role in talks leading to a 1998 peace deal which mostly ended three decades of sectarian violence that killed 3,600 people in British-controlled Northern Ireland.
The power-sharing government with former Protestant foes is a fragile arrangement and nearly fell last year over how to transfer more powers from Britain but it also has been a vital means of standing up to the sporadic violence which has intensified in the past couple of years.
While analysts say a McGuinness presidential win would not destabilise the Northern Ireland administration, sufficient further gains in the Republic to put Sinn Fein in power certainly would.
"It's something Unionists will look at and wonder what effect would it have on North-South bodies if Sinn Fein were in a coalition? I wouldn't think it's a cause for concern, it's more food for thought," said Brian Feeney, a Northern Irish political commentator and author.
"If they were in a government in the south, that would certainly have an impact for the administration in the north. A lot of Unionists would wonder whether the Irish government with Sinn Fein in it would be exercising more pressure on the British to move things on here. There are all sorts of implications."
North-south relations already may have soured a little over media in the Republic's constant attention on McGuinness's past and more particularly, the painting by some ministers from Ireland's senior government party of McGuinness as a villain.
One minister warned competitors for foreign investment would "not be slow to whisper about a terrorist" holding the office of president if he won while McGuinness also has stoked the tension, blaming "West Brit elements" in the media and political parties for repeated references to his IRA past.
"West Brit" is a derogatory term for an Irish person perceived to be overly pro-British.
The attacks, common in notoriously grubby Irish presidential campaigns, have people in the streets of Belfast scratching their heads.
"It seems to be the people who are attacking him are the same people who said what a great statesman he was and what a great job he was doing as Deputy First Minister," Stewart said.
"They are just a bunch of hypocrites -- seems he's good enough for us but not for them down there."
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Michael Roddy)