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McGuinness loses ground in Irish president race: poll

Oct 2, 2011, 8:31 a.m.
Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness smiles at a news conference in the Dublin Writers Museum, in Dublin, Ireland September 18, 2011. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Former Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander Martin McGuinness has slipped to fifth from third in the race to become Ireland's president, a poll showed Sunday, as his Sinn Fein party struggles to match its success in Northern Ireland.

After a wave of criticism of his violent past and accusations he is misrepresenting the extent of his role in the IRA, support for McGuinness has fallen over the last two weeks to 11 percent from 17 percent, ahead of the October 27 election.

Voters instead look set to choose either poet and former culture minister Michael D. Higgins or openly gay senator David Norris, a scholar in the works of novelist James Joyce, for the largely ceremonial role.

Higgins has the support of 27 percent and Norris 20 percent of voters, the Quantum Research/Sunday Independent poll found.

Despite a surge in support since Ireland's economy collapsed in 2008, McGuinness's Sinn Fein party remains toxic for many voters in the Irish republic due to the targeting of civilians by its IRA military wing during a 30-year campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein is the largest Catholic party in Northern Ireland where it shares power with a mainly protestant rival under a 1998 peace deal that ended the IRA's campaign.

Sinn Fein secured 10 percent of the vote in Irish parliamentary elections in February, much of it in areas bordering Northern Ireland, and appears unlikely to make a significant breakthrough in the presidential vote.

Some voters also have expressed concern about the impact of a strong McGuinness showing on Ireland's international reputation.

"Putting Mr McGuinness in charge of this State would leave us looking like a Banana Republic," Environment Minister Phil Hogan said in an interview with the Sunday Independent, the latest of a string of attacks from mainstream parties.

McGuinness is the least likely to pick up second-preference votes from most of his rivals, the poll showed, a factor analysts see as key to winning the race under Ireland's system of proportional representation.

(Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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