Irish Voters Spoilt for Choice

By Feidhlim de Frein, October 9, 2011

Michael Higgins, one of the seven candidates

Michael Higgins, one of the seven candidates

Irish presidential elections will be held on 27 October with an unusually varied range of candidates: a Eurovision Song Contest winner, a poet, a TV personality, a former coach-builder, a Special Olympics organiser, a gay Joycean scholar, and the ex-Chief of Staff of the IRA.

Irish presidential elections were once a by-word for dullness. They typically featured one elderly male put out to grass by the largest political party, Fianna Fáil (‘Soldiers of Destiny’), up against another elderly male from the second-largest one, Fine Gael (‘Tribes of Ireland’). With the inevitability of Germany beating England at football, the Soldier with the Destiny always won.

The next election looms on 27 October. However, for the first time ever, Fianna Fáil haven’t put up a candidate, so shell-shocked are they from their unprecedented hammering in the general election eight months ago when they lost three-quarters of their seats. The absence of these formidable political predators has encouraged a variety of others to throw their hats into the ring, and we are now confronted with the largest and most colourful cast of candidates ever assembled for an Irish presidential election, including a Eurovision Song Contest winner, a published poet, a TV personality, a former coach-builder, a Special Olympics organiser, a gay Joycean scholar, and the ex-Chief of Staff of the IRA. Small wonder the electorate is confused.

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Irish presidential elections are held just once every seven years, though in practice, this averages once every fourteen, as half the time nobody has bothered to oppose the Fianna Fáil candidate. One president, Dr Patrick Hillery, managed the singular achievement of serving two terms over 1976-90 without the electorate being consulted on either occasion.

Youthful candidates were (and still are) actively discouraged – the Irish constitution specifies that a candidate must be at least 35 years old. One incumbent, Eamon de Valera, was 91 and almost blind by the time he was helped off the stage in 1973.

Once elected, they busied themselves opening events, supporting charities and attending sporting fixtures, while trying to stay out of the way of grubby day-to-day politics. The wisdom of this approach was underlined by the experience of one president who did try to take the constitutional aspects of the role more seriously, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh (1974-76).

Following the IRA assassination of the British Ambassador to Ireland in 1976, the Irish government declared a formal State of Emergency (this was complicated by the fact that nobody had remembered to cancel the previous State of Emergency, declared in 1939 on the outbreak of World War II; the first one had to be rescinded before the next one could begin). Ó Dálaigh, who had previously served as Attorney General, Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court, was concerned by some of the provisions in the resultant Emergency Powers Bill, and exercised his right to refer it to the Supreme Court. In response, the Minister for Defence, Paddy Donegan, in a speech at an army barracks delivered while apparently under the influence of alcohol, denounced the President as a “thundering disgrace” (this is widely regarded as the media’s euphemistic contraction of two separate epithets, “thundering bollocks” and “fucking disgrace”). An appalled Ó Dálaigh resigned, and we reverted to business-as-usual for another decade-and-a-half.

Then, in 1990, in a spectacular upset, the then-conservative Irish voting public contrived to elect not just a woman, but an activist left-wing feminist one at that – Mary Robinson. This presidential cat alarmed the ruling political pigeons so much that the then-Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, at one stage invoked his constitutional right to forbid her from leaving the country, so upstaged was he by her skyrocketing domestic and international popularity.

The shattering of this particular glass ceiling did not go unnoticed, and when Robinson resigned in 1997 to become UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, no fewer than four of the five candidates to replace her were female. The resultant election was won by Mary McAleese, a Belfast-born academic (the sole male came in last with less than 5% of the vote). Despite her one-time ‘angry northerner’ reputation – she is remembered as a particularly fearsome law professor at Trinity College Dublin – on taking office she quickly morphed into a sort of wholesome, Mammy-to-the-Nation figure. In 2004, with no other candidate standing, she was deemed re-elected.

With the president now at the end of her constitutionally-mandated maximum of two terms, the race is on to replace her. Oddly enough, the one candidate who would probably romp home is Martin McAleese, by profession a dentist and an accountant, but better known as the current president’s husband, and who by all accounts made a quiet but particularly useful contribution to the Northern Ireland Peace Process by establishing friendly relationships with a variety of Unionist groups, including the Orange Order and the previously beyond-the-pale Ulster Loyalist paramilitaries. However, he has ruled out swapping places with his wife, and the electorate is now confronted with a cast of candidates that would be dismissed as outlandish if encountered in a work of fiction.

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The early front-runner was the Congo-born Senator David Norris, an extrovert Gaelic- and Hebrew-speaking Joycean scholar and gay rights activist. Norris earned a considerable reputation in the 1970s and 1980s from his long-term leadership of the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality – he once described Pope John Paul II as “an instrument of evil” and the then Cardinal Ratzinger as “a Nazi”, remarks that raised a few eyebrows, coming as they did from a Protestant homosexual living in what was then an overwhelmingly conservative Catholic country. Norris also championed James Joyce (whose work had been lauded everywhere except Ireland), campaigned for the preservation of Georgian buildings in Dublin, and has been active in numerous human rights causes.

However, the senator’s campaign was holed above the water-line in May, and below it in July. First, it emerged that he had given a long-forgotten interview in January 2002 with the current affairs magazine Magill in which he referred to “classic paedophilia, as practised by the Greeks” in a manner that didn’t appear entirely disapproving. He also seemed to suggest that the process of investigating a paedophile could damage a child more than the original offence.

Norris condemned the original article as a misrepresentation of his views, and its unearthing a decade later as a smear. However, the journalist who conducted the original interview was, at the time, so concerned that the quotes would damage him, she phoned him before they went to press and asked him to confirm that he was happy for them to be published (he was). She then briefed the magazine’s editor, who agreed that Norris “needed to be protected from his own foolhardiness” and asked her to check with him a second time, this time sending him the entire article, showing the quotes in context. Norris requested some minor changes and approved the article, so his claims of misrepresentation hardly stand up.

The controversy soon blew over, but the second issue to arise proved more serious. Norris’s former lover, Ezra Nawi, had been convicted in an Israeli court in 1992 for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old Palestinian boy. It transpired that the senator had written a letter, on Irish parliamentary notepaper, to ask the court to show clemency to Nawi. Blind-sided by this revelation, some of Norris’s staff resigned, and faced with a media frenzy, he withdrew his candidacy.

However, his durable personal popularity, the dignified manner of his withdrawal, and the growing public view that the inappropriate letter wasn’t a hanging offence, meant he continued to enjoy opinion poll ratings of c40%, well ahead of the other candidates. A campaign was formed to get him back into the race, and in September, he announced his return to the fray, no doubt encouraged by the recently-announced candidacy of ex-IRA Chief of Staff Martin McGuinness (ie, if involvement in mass murder is no obstacle to being a candidate, it’s hard to argue that writing an improper letter is).

However, in the similar disciplines of politics and boxing, comebacks seldom end happily. A week after he re-entered the race, it emerged that he had written at least seven other letters seeking clemency on Nawi’s behalf. With a disappointed public increasingly wondering what other unpleasant surprises might emerge, his opinion poll ratings have plummeted.

Eurovision Song Contest winner Dana (full name Dana Rosemary Scallon) is a religious conservative who surprisingly finished a respectable third out of five in the 1997 presidential election, and subsequently won a seat in the European Parliament in 1999 as an independent running on a family-values platform, opposed to abortion, divorce and contraception. (This is the Irish ‘Dana’, who won the 1970 Eurovision with the saccharine ‘All Kinds of Everything’, not to be confused with the Israeli transsexual ‘Dana International’, who won the same contest in 1998 with ‘Diva’.)

Dana was born in London, but raised in a musical family in a deprived part of Derry, the Creggan and Bogside estates that were once the cockpit of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. (By coincidence, the Bogside has another representative in the presidential race, the aforementioned Martin McGuinness, who shares an ascetic religiosity with her, if nothing else.) Dana enjoyed a successful recording career throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and then moved to Alabama in the 1990s, where she occupied herself with religious radio broadcasting for several years. We may safely assume that her album Totus Tuus (Totally Yours), A Tribute to Pope John Paul II, is not on Senator Norris’s iPod.

The most conventional political candidate is Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell, who isn’t gay, and isn’t even that conventional. A working-class Dubliner in a largely rural middle-class party, he was one of a family of nine raised by his widowed mother, who worked as a cleaner to support her children. He initially worked in a coach-building factory, but studied at night and gained masters degrees in accountancy and politics. In any normal election, he might be expected to be among the front-runners, but opinion polls have him languishing at c10%, with only around a third of his own party members proposing to vote for him. Perceived as lacking ‘presidential’ qualities, he is regarded as being more of the hard-working-community-activist school of politics, leavened with the occasional, quirky, single-issue cause (back in 1990s, he was one of the main proponents of a campaign to bring the Olympics Games to Ireland, something that was widely viewed as more than a tad unrealistic).

The clear leader at the moment is Labour’s Michael D Higgins, who, at 70, is also the oldest candidate. Raised in modest circumstances on a farm in the west of Ireland, he became in turn a clerk at the Electricity Supply Board, a professor of politics, and a very popular Arts and Culture Minister in the 1994-97 government. Once regarded as a quite left-wing figure in the moderate Labour party, he appears mellower these days.

A popular speaker (despite an admitted tendency to long-windedness, as well as a somewhat prissy voice), he has also produced several collections of well-regarded poems, many with political or humanitarian themes, and others with a more ironic bite, such as Jesus Appears in Dublin in 1990 at the Port and Docks Board Site. He is also president of Galway United Football Club (currently rooted to the bottom of the Irish Premier League with one win in 32 games), sharing a boardroom that also includes Barings’ nemesis Nick Leeson, who until recently was chief executive of the club. Despite his close identification with the left, Higgins is attracting support from all across the political spectrum – his intellect, experience, and (relatively) safe pair of hands appear to be overriding the electorate’s qualms about having to listen to “that voice” for the next seven years.

The candidacy of Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, has enlivened proceedings no end. Fine Gael, the most hard-line anti-IRA of all the southern parties, have turned the spotlight on McGuinness’s past. For his part, McGuinness has pointed out that if he can work with the likes of the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, he can surely work with moderate southern politicians. McGuinness states that many Unionists have wished him well in his campaign; others suggest that Unionists do so because they’d be delighted to get rid of him across the border.

Sinn Féin accuse Fine Gael of double standards – they’re happy to urge Unionists to share power with Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, but are aghast at the prospect of anything similar happening in the Republic. Fine Gael accuse Sinn Féin of the same hypocrisy – Sinn Féin mercilessly criticise the southern political parties for everything and anything, but affect to be appalled when anyone dares to scrutinise their own gory record. Fine Gael would not have been thrilled by the surprising contribution to this debate from Shaun Woodward, former British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – while not exactly endorsing McGuinness, he did declare him to be a “fit and proper candidate”.

When asked about membership of the IRA, most ex-members use vague phrases such as “I was active on behalf of my people”, thus achieving the twin aims of not telling credibility-damaging lies, while avoiding admissions that could result in prosecution. But McGuinness eschews these evasions, stating plainly that while he was once in the IRA, he left it permanently in 1974, an assurance that practically nobody in Ireland, north or south, believes to be true. The republican commentator Anthony McIntyre, himself an ex-IRA prisoner, has described this as an “Orwellian” situation, ie, the only people in the country who are prepared to state publicly that McGuinness was not in the IRA are people who were in the IRA with him. (McGuinness’s colleague Gerry Adams takes this strategy a step further and denies ever being in the organisation, skilfully deploying a variation of the Bart Simpson defence “I didn’t do it, nobody saw me, you can’t prove it”.)

Of the two remaining candidates, not a great deal was known about them until relatively recently. Mary Davis was once a physical-education teacher who became involved in volunteering in the area of providing services to people with intellectual disabilities, and eventually became CEO of Special Olympics Ireland. Nobody seems to dislike her, a rare enough characteristic in Irish political life, but she lacks a high media profile and her campaign is not yet getting traction. Sean Gallagher is a businessman (though 99% of the population probably couldn’t tell you what business he was in) and participant in the TV programme Dragon’s Den in which budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of hard-to-impress millionaires. He is also an ex-member of Fianna Fáil, which could work both for and against him.

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So who will win? At the time of writing, the most respected of all commentators in Ireland – the bookmakers – rate Michael D Higgins a red-hot favourite, at 1/2 on. Gallagher has come from nowhere to second-favourite at 9/2, with McGuinness 9/1 and Davis 10/1. Norris and Mitchell have drifted out to 20/1, with Dana off the radar.

The media have rated only four of the candidates as genuine contenders. Surprisingly, McGuinness is one of them. Although he is anathema to the majority of the electorate, younger voters regard the Northern Ireland conflict (and his role in it) as ancient history, and he also gets credit for his conciliatory behaviour since attaining office, so it’s possible he could come through in a divided field. If Norris is to pull out of his nose-dive, he must hope that the controversies blow over and that no fresh ones emerge. He used to be the candidate who cheered people up, but the noise of rattling skeletons has followed him around and frightened the horses. Gallagher may once have been a member of Fianna Fáil, currently a vote-repellent political brand, but the fact that he is running as an independent means he can avoid that odium while also providing cover for FF-ers to support him without embarrassment, and his opinion poll ratings have risen sharply.

The diminutive Higgins (he had to stand on a box during a TV debate) is still the man to beat. He is regarded as the most substantial candidate, the most known quantity, and the least likely to embarrass the country. He broke his leg during a fact-finding trip to Colombia last year, and reportedly experiences some discomfort in walking, but if he can stay standing until 27 October, the prize is his.

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