Like most of the rest of the Irish population, I was enthralled by the campaign, and then by the dramatic result of this year’s remarkable general election. Voters used the ballot box to vent their considerable anger at the malaise we now find ourselves in, consigning what has always been the dominant Irish political party, Fianna Fáil, to an insignificant presence on the back benches of Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament), and choosing a Fine Gael/Labour party coalition to govern the country.
My post-election withdrawals were eased by the knowledge that there would be a contested presidential election later in the year. After two, seven-year terms, the Irish people would have the chance to select a successor to President Mary McAleese. Hers are big shoes to fill because President McAleese performed admirably both as a committed advocate for communities, groups and individuals in Irish society and as a magnificent ambassador for Ireland around the world. Her popularity led to her re-election by acclamation in 2004. As such, the upcoming presidential election this autumn will be the first contested election to occupy Áras an Uachtaráin (the president’s official residence) since 1997. What’s happened thus far?
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Initially, high profile figures like Nobel Peace Prize Winner John Hume, poet Seamus Heaney, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, highly regarded journalist Olivia O’Leary and others were either mooted as candidates or approached by political parties to be their standard bearers. In the end, none even considered running.
One high profile independent candidate, Senator David Norris, declared his interest early and campaigned unofficially, but earnestly, citing a laudable record of advocacy for human rights and equality in this country and abroad. Opinion polls had showed him to be the most popular choice for the Áras. However, Norris very recently abandoned his candidacy, as has been well chronicled in the media, when transcripts of equivocal statements about paedophilia and a letter seeking leniency for his former lover after a statutory rape conviction surfaced.
Another independent candidate, Niall O’Dowd of this parish, explored an unprecedented, “outsider” campaign for the Áras touting the strength of the global Irish diaspora and the need to sell “brand Ireland” in these difficult times but eventually decided not to run.
Legendary RTÉ broadcaster Gay Byrne, perhaps first seriously tempted by a phone call from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin offering support, then considered his own independent candidacy, but soon decided, for a variety of reasons, that the job wasn’t right for him at age 77. Equally legendary RTÉ sportscaster Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh and Irish Eurovision winner Dana Rosemary Scallon are now reportedly considering a run. It’s hard to believe that either – he’s 81 and her right wing Catholic views are out of step with the overwhelming majority of the electorate – will run or be a much of a factor.
And notwithstanding persistent, fairly wild rumours of ongoing “approaches” being made to a myriad of prominent figures, it seems improbable that another independent candidate will surface at this juncture.
Fianna Fáil, at its historical nadir in the opinion polls, is highly unlikely to field its own candidate, having tried to entice “celebrity” independents to enter the race with party support. The party brand is toxic and the funds necessary to run a campaign that is almost certainly doomed to fail are better off in the bank than in the bin. Likewise, it appears doubtful that Sinn Féin, whose appeal with the national electorate remains limited, could now put forward a viable candidate.
So who does that leave?
After a three-way, very civil, internal contest, the Labour party nominated perhaps its most recognisable figure, long time Galway TD (member of parliament), Michael D. Higgins. Michael D., as he is widely known, is a poet, writer, former NUI Galway lecturer and human rights activist, and also served as a Senator, a county councillor, city councillor and as Mayor of Galway City. He played a key role in establishing TG4, the Irish language television station, when he was a member of cabinet in the mid-1990s.
Despite being well left of centre politically, Michael D. has a committed personal following in the rural, conservative west of Ireland. In this presidential election, his left of centre views and Labour party identification will play very well in Dublin, whose abundant voters are far more liberal and Labour-leaning than voters in the regions. What’s more, Michael D. has devoted admirers throughout the country and, because of his rather unique, quirky and outspoken public persona, there is nary an Irish voter who doesn’t know him. After the demise of Senator Norris, who would have run very strongly in Dublin (where he lives) and attracted votes from those on the political left and the many citizens of all stripes who like him personally, Michael D. Higgins is, by a long shot, the undisputed front runner in the race.
On the other hand, Fine Gael had a three-way, but very uncivil, battle for its party nomination. The eventual nominee, Dublin’s Gay Mitchell, a long time party stalwart and office holder (in the Irish and European parliaments and on Dublin City Council), appealed to the party’s grass roots and prevailed in an internal vote. This result visibly infuriated the party leadership, who had preferred either of the other two challengers because of significant doubts about Mitchell’s electability. The party leadership’s fear seems to be that Mitchell is too drab, too much of an insider, “too Dublin,” too conservative and will prove just too unpopular with voters to win national office in the Ireland of 2011.
There’s no doubt that Mitchell will poll reasonably well in Dublin and that his socially conservative views will appeal to some rural voters, but it will take some doing for him to attract the broader support necessary to win the election. Not winning the presidency could be somewhat embarrassing for Fine Gael given their historically strong general election performance and still strong standing in the polls.
There are two independent candidates of note: Sean Gallagher and Mary Davis. Gallagher, a successful businessman and star of the popular “Dragon’s Den” Irish reality TV programme, is an unknown quantity politically or otherwise, excepting his past tenure on the Fianna Fáil national executive. That unerasable line on his CV won’t help him with the electorate.
Davis is a social entrepreneur and activist best known for her great work on the Special Olympics when the games were held in Ireland in 2003, but a similarly unknown quantity politically. She has an undeniable asset in her gender in this campaign. Davis performed poorly, however, in the one televised encounter the presidential candidates have had to date. In particular, one response she gave to a question revealed a profound misunderstanding of the constitutional powers of the Irish president.
Davis and Gallagher are well down in the opinion polls at the moment and will need a momentous boost to get their campaigns kick-started. And as independents, they lack the significant benefit of major party support that Michael D. and Mitchell enjoy.
The presidential election is clearly Michael D. Higgins’s to lose at this point – Paddy Power Bookmakers rate him an 8/11 favourite – and it’s difficult to see how he doesn’t win right now. There are some variables. Michael D. could come off as annoying, arrogant and tedious during the campaign; Mitchell’s party affiliation could be enough to overcome his weaknesses; Davis or Gallagher might catch fire; Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin could nominate a candidate; a “celebrity” candidate, whether with the a party’s or as a true independent, could parachute into the race at this relatively late stage and change the dynamics entirely.
But each of these is growing increasingly implausible by the day. The most likely scenario now is certainly appealing to the Labour party and to the litany of fans Michael D. Higgins has across the political spectrum and the country. Yet this scenario is rather disappointing to those of us fascinated by electoral politics. In the end, for all of the anticipation ahead of and excitement about the 2011 Irish presidential election, it looks like it’ll be a damp squib.
*Larry Donnelly is a contributing columnist to IrishCentral.com. A native of Boston, he has been resident in Ireland for many years. He is a lawyer and law lecturer.