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.