Sinn Fein presidential candidate Liadh Ni Riada has said her vow to wear a poppy if elected president was inspired by Martin McGuinness.
During a televised debate on Monday candidates were asked if they would wear the poppy on Armistice Day.
Ms Ni Riada, who said she would, said she immediately thought of the former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland’s gesture when he met the Queen in 2012.
“Certainly, it wasn’t a question I was expecting, and in the moment I had to genuinely think about it, because personally it would be a struggle for me,” she told the Press Association on Wednesday.
“An image of Martin McGuinness came into my head and I remembered all the times he went to the Flanders fields or shook the Queen’s hand and making bold moves in showing how inclusive we are.
“I always take inspiration from Martin McGuinness, what a kind, incredible man he was.
“I often think how he would approach things and I think that was indicative the other night when the question came up and he just popped into my head, but the difference is, I didn’t come from the same background as Martin, I didn’t have to put up with the same struggles he had to.”
Ms Ni Riada’s answer during the debate has drawn criticism from members of her party, and the candidate admits the topic is divisive, especially within Sinn Fein.
“I obviously realise as a republican what that means and the hurt that is there,” she said.
“To wear such an emblem like that, it’s not about diminishing that sense of republicanism, I think it’s about being comfortable in your own republicanism to be okay with that.
“I do however think that it’s about being bigger than me, being bigger than all of us in one sense of trying to be inclusive.
“It’s not a Sinn Fein position and I understand that very clearly, however I’ve had a lot of positive feedback.
“People who are canvassing for me would never wear a poppy and I would never expect them to or want them to wear a poppy, but they respect the position I’d be coming from as president, I’d have to be president for people of all persuasions.”
Ms Ni Riada, who is from the Gaeltacht in Co Cork, learned English as a second language at age four, before losing both her parents at a young age.
She says the adversity she faced in her own life has inspired a sense of empathy.
“I have a great sense of social injustice and empathy because of my own childhood and overcoming adversity,” she said.
“I’m a very positive-natured person. I think sometimes I’m a bit of a Pollyanna, I believe things are there to test you and help develop you as a person.
“You can’t let your adversity rule who you are, but that sense of social injustice is part of my DNA.”
Ms Ni Riada said she was not interested in negative campaigning against the other candidates in the race, but was not shocked at businessman Peter Casey’s comments about the travelling community on Wednesday morning.
Mr Casey said Travellers were simply people camping on someone else’s land and said Ireland’s recognition of them as members of an ethnic minority was “a load of nonsense”.
“I am not shocked or surprised at all, I think he’s in it for the craic - it beggars belief, and I think he’s doing a disservice to the office,” said Ms Ni Riada.
“The travelling community are an ethnic minority that have been failed by the state, and treated appallingly.
“If elected I would like to see a member of the travelling community on the Council of State.”
The Sinn Fein MEP has been labelled in the media as “socially conservative” in the past, a label she says does not apply to her. She added that she does not know where the idea came from.
“I have campaigned on progressive issues, during the abortion rights campaign, which was a long campaign, I was doing work in Strasbourg, I was certainly very active on it,” she said.
“I don’t know where people get this idea I’m socially conservative - I’m the least conservative person I know.
“One of my brothers came out when he was in his fifties, which I found very sad that he left it until that time. Growing up, my best friend was gay, and I remember thinking; ‘You can’t be the only gay person in the parish.’
“I’m so happy we’re a stage in society where that is acceptable, as it always should have been,” she said.
Ms Ni Riada is currently polling third after firm favourite, current President Michael D Higgins, and businessman Sean Gallagher.