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.