“I’d have been ashamed not to join the IRA”

Sophie Elmhirst joins Martin McGuinness on the presidential campaign trail in Dublin, and finds an e

A little girl cartwheels nonchalantly through the hallway at the community centre in Ringsend, east Dublin. Not everyone, it seems, is excited at the prospect of Martin McGuinness's imminent arrival. Nearby, a boy holding a football, crimson-faced and out of breath, turns to a member of staff who is trying to corral the scattered children before the political delegation descends, and says: "So, what do we get for doing this?"

Outside, photographers and cameramen have gathered on one side of the street, the children on the other. The two camps shuffle and whisper in anticipation. A boy stands in the middle of the road yelling, "It's him!" every time he spots a car in the distance. Another TV crew arrives. "Will I be on telly?" asks a girl, already waving at the camera. And then they all surge forward, muscling each other out of the way, a photographer removing a spare child by his shoulders so that he can get a clear view of McGuinness, Sinn Fein's candidate for the Irish presidency in the 27 October election, walking down this street by Dublin's old docks.

He smiles as the children amass around his legs. McGuinness's ability to smile for hours on end, beyond the point of face-ache but in a way that always seems sincere, is noteworthy. "What's your name? And what's your name?" he asks the children one by one. They all give him fake names, giggling. One of their super­visors shakes her head and mutters under her breath that they would "buy and sell you in a day if they could".

The media pack soon takes over, pressing towards McGuinness. The questions are all on a single theme: the television debate that took place last night between the seven presidential candidates on RTE, the Irish state broadcaster. In the course of the programme, the presenter, Miriam O'Callaghan, asked McGuinness how his belief in God squared with his former life as a leading member of the IRA. He complained, and newspaper reports described him taking the presenter into a room after the show for a private conversation from which she emerged "shell-shocked" five minutes later. That's the way the Irish newspapers write about McGuinness: laced with a threat of violence and intimidation, a hardman enforcer in disguise.

Today, however, he's back on track, friendly and upbeat. The smile - a sort of wrinkly grin, grandfatherly (he has five of them) and oddly gentle - is fixed. McGuinness is the "People's President", according to his campaign literature. Visiting community centres of this sort is the "best part of the job", he tells the centre manager, as she leads him through a computer room - where people queue to have their photo taken with him - and out to a football pitch and a string of allotments lining the waterfront.

It's a fine afternoon, cool and sunny, and the photographers are relishing the inevitable prospect of McGuinness shedding his jacket, pushing up his sleeves and kicking a ball. The kids are ready, a goal is set up and he tells the photographers to swing their cameras off him and on to the tiny boy wearing over-large gloves who's sinking low to the ground, pre­paring to save the visitor's shot.

He's good at this, McGuinness. Not all politicians are - especially two tired weeks in to a month-long campaign, traversing Ireland from town to town, interview to interview. He has the gift of chatter, but more than that he looks like he enjoys it. At one point, as we pass the allotments, he tells the manager about his herb garden at home, the satisfaction he gets from growing tarragon and rosemary and thyme. She looks enchanted.

Such homely domesticity is not what you might expect from this former leader of the Irish Republican Army, who claims to have left the organisation in 1974 but whom no one believes. It is widely thought that he remained involved at the highest level throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.

He is associated with years of violence, and has been accused of having a hand in the murders of civilians and soldiers. In 1993, the ITV investigative documentary The Cook Report suggested that McGuinness had encouraged the informer Frank Hegarty to return to Derry from a safe house in London, promising that he wouldn't be hurt. Hegarty came back and was soon murdered. He has also been linked to the 1990 death of Patsy Gillespie, a Catholic cook for the British army who, after his family was taken hostage, was forced to drive a bomb-loaded truck into a Derry army barracks, killing himself and five servicemen. (McGuinness denies any involvement in either case.) A few days before we meet, McGuinness has been confronted by the son of an Irish soldier, Patrick Kelly, killed by the IRA in 1983. These violent deaths are still close, still remembered.

McGuinness has since become a figurehead for peace, as Sinn Fein's lead negotiator in the long process leading to the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, and then, following the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, serving first under Ian Paisley and then Peter Robinson. Paisley and McGuinness, once consumed by mutual loathing, became something approaching friends (an Ulster Unionist nicknamed them the Chuckle Brothers).

In his 2008 book Great Hatred, Little Room, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff, describes the highly charged early meetings they had with Gerry Adams and McGuinness (Powell's brother Charles, a foreign affairs adviser to Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister, had been on an IRA hit list for seven years): "It was a curiosity to meet people who had been demonised throughout my adult life. Television had not even been able legally to broadcast their voices and so for years the slightly threatening, bearded face of Adams and the clear, chilling eyes of McGuinness had been overlaid by the voices of actors." But there they both were, sitting in front of him, far more flexible, "articulate and interesting" than he had expected.

This is the side of his political life that McGuinness wants the Irish people to remember: the reformed man, the young, hot-headed idealist who learned the error of his ways and forged peace, an achievement that still wins him plaudits from around the world (his campaign website features photographs of him with Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela). To some in Ireland he is a hero - a man who stood up for the oppressed, who fought the British. To others, he was, is and will always be a criminal.

When we talk later on, after a rally in central Dublin, McGuinness concedes that he never thought he would stand for the presidency; that it would be his name printed on the side of a huge campaign bus. Sinn Fein, now the third-largest party in Ireland after the collapse of Fianna Fail in last February's general election, lacked a candidate. Gerry Adams ruled himself out; McGuinness was asked and, after much deliberation, said yes. What convinced him? "The dire state of the economy in the south and the need to stand up against the selfish and the greedy; those people who awarded themselves the big salaries, the big pensions and the big bonuses, effectively plunging the people of this country into misery and despair."

He knew that his opponents would relish dragging up his past. "I was prepared that people who felt that their position was threatened by entry into the race would stoop to any tactic to try to undermine the campaign," he says. "But you know, isn't it amazing that many of us have made peace with each other from the north and are working together to build a better future, yet we've seen a reaction to my involvement in this election from people who have yet to understand the art of peacemaking?"

This is his tactic: after any mention of his violent past, McGuinness reminds you of what came next - his status as a peacemaker. Who else among the candidates (they include the Irish-American singer and Eurovision contest winner Dana Scallon and an Irish Dragons' Den panellist, Seán Gallagher) has secured a peace deal ending years of conflict? McGuinness has unveiled other tricks, too. He has refused, as a symbolic gesture, to take his full salary if elected, proposing to take the average industrial wage instead and use the surplus to rescue six young people from the dole queue, funding their employment.

Such ideas chime well at our next stop on the campaign trail, a drug addiction centre in Irishtown, a poor neighbourhood in east Dublin. He listens to the former addicts who depend on the centre to stay clean and then to a speech from its manager about how funding cuts will threaten the service. He invites them all to the president's house once he's inside. "I'll be the voice of the voiceless," he promises.

There are more photos, more handshakes. With all the hugs and smiles, children thrust into his arms, it's closer to a US campaign than the awkwardly staged encounters of a British election. To these people, McGuinness - despite his suit and tie - is somewhere between a war hero and aged rock star.

After we leave the centre, he slips away with his advisers to rest before the evening event, a rally at the Mansion House in the centre of the city. He has been on the move since morning, travelling, meeting and greeting, and this will be a grand occasion: a roll-call of Irish celebrities, from sportsmen to Hollywood actors, is due to endorse him in front of the audience of 400. Long before he arrives, the media are once again on the pavement outside, waiting. As before, he makes a walking entrance, in classic politician-at-ease style, this time accompanied by his wife, Bernadette, and two sons. They stand in front of the banks of photographers, blinking into the flashes. As I follow him into the main hall, the swelling roar erupts as he enters, the large crowd up on its feet, music soaring over the noise.

The photographers race to snap him embracing Adams, who is sitting on the front row. It feels like a festival - there are whole families here, children on their fathers' shoulders, girls dressed up, old men cheering. On stage, the actor Colm Meaney (Star Trek, The Commitments) presides, introducing folk musicians, a hurler and a footballer, among others, all of whom make speeches of support.

At the climax of the long evening, McGuinness is summoned to the stage. He calms the feverish crowd. His oratorical style is understated; he's no grandstander, no tub-thumper. The speech is delivered quietly, evenly, and the best parts are the most personal - even one of his advisers confides that his attempts at rabble-rousing and policy prescription fall a little flat. The guests are most engaged when his voice drops and he tells the story of his life: born in 1950 on the Bogside in Derry, his father a foundry worker and devout Catholic who took communion every day, his mother a worker in a shirt factory. His parents, he says, supported him even when he joined the IRA as a teenager.

By the age of 21, he was second-in-command of the IRA in Derry and was convicted in 1973 by the Republic of Ireland's Special Criminal Court after being caught with a car full of explosives and ammunition. He was given a six-month sentence. The following year, he married Bernadette after they were introduced by a friend, Colm, who always dressed like a Bay City Roller, and was later shot dead by a British soldier. He sounds choked at the memory. As if in direct response to his hounding in the television debate last night and the accusations in the newspapers over the past month, he squares up to the doubts, describing the years of oppression he and his friends in Derry endured at the hands of the British and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. "I would have been ashamed not to join the IRA," he says. The statement is met with whistles and long, warm applause.

At the end of the speech, the music kicks in, the audience rises and the hurler, the footballer and all the other speakers join him on stage as streamers fall from the ceiling. One of his advisers leads me up to a gallery, away from the fray, and we watch from above as McGuinness says hello to anyone who approaches while a press officer helplessly tries to extract him from the teeming admirers. Eventually he comes up, wearing the glassy-eyed stare of a man who has just emerged from bright lights and a boisterous crowd. I ask him if he feels like a different person from the man he described in his speech, the teenager who joined the IRA.

“When I was 21 years of age I never thought I'd live to 25," he replies. "We lived in a war zone - it was absolutely terrible. There is nothing glorious or great about war." It's a more humble tone from the mock-heroism of earlier. "I'm just glad that I've been part of what is, I suppose, a very small group of people who have effectively brought that to an end."

His task now, he says, is to unify Ireland, for north and south to become one country - a mission that will be thwarted at every turn by the unionists in the north. How can he deliver on such a promise? McGuinness describes it as "a process of evolution". Already, he says, "we have united the people of Ireland behind peace. And we have united the people of Ireland against violence. We're part of the All-Ireland Ministerial Council, the North/South Ministerial Council, where we meet with our counterparts in Dublin." He plans, if elected, to implement a ten-year period of reconciliation, an extension of the community work he has already done in the north with the Presbyterian minister David Latimer and the Catholic priest Michael Canny. Even if true unity is a distant dream, he feels he can get close symbolically.

We don't have long to talk. I ask him if he's still in touch with Blair ("He sent me a Christmas card," he laughs, and then hotly denounces Blair's Iraq misadventure), but his press officer is anxious to take him away. Every minute on the campaign is accounted for, and though it is late and he's tired, McGuinness's engagements are not over yet. We talk about his love of poetry - his heroes are Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney - and about how he no longer has much time to write his own. Then he is whisked down the stairs and out of the hall.

I watch him go and hang behind until I'm the only one left apart from the technicians dismantling the stage and the caretakers sweeping up the streamers. But when I walk out of the hall, there is the press officer, sitting on the wall with a look of surrender on his face, and behind him is McGuinness, being collared by an elderly supporter to whom he is listening carefully, taking in every word, nodding and agreeing and still, after all this time, somehow smiling.

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the New Statesman