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Musings on a rollercoaster ride - the 2011 Irish Presidential election

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Michael D Higgins gives his acceptance speech (Photo: Tom Honan)

Hearty congratulations are due to the President-elect, Michael D. Higgins. The long-time Labour activist and office holder had been interested in pursuing the presidency for some years now and prevailed in his first campaign for the office.

He conducted his campaign with dignity, integrity and vigor. At all times, he demonstrated both a clear vision for what he would undertake to accomplish if elected and, at the same time, an understanding of what the President of Ireland can and cannot do.

Two points are worth noting in the wake of Michael D.’s – I don’t think he’ll ever escape his famous moniker and I’m not sure he wants to! – triumph. First is the universally fawning reaction of the Irish print media since his election. From the paper of record to the most sensationalist of the tabloids, many Irish journalists clearly got the president they wanted. Only time will tell if he will live up to their expectations.

Second is that Ireland will soon have a President, a Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) and a Tánaiste (Deputy Irish Prime Minister) from the west of Ireland. As the President-elect said at a raucous civic reception held in John F. Kennedy Park in Eyre Square, “it is of Galway that I am.” With this unprecedented concentration of power, all of us who either are natives of or have roots in the west can only hope that the long-neglected region benefits from overdue investment in infrastructure and job creation.

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An issue that has featured in some media coverage since the election of Michael D. Higgins as Ireland’s ninth president is his view of the United States. As an academic, a poet, a human rights activist and an elected official, Michael D. has never been shy about expressing his opinions on a wide array of matters. This frankness has led to his espousing robust critiques of aspects of American foreign policy.

Whether in supporting the Palestinians and the Sandinistas or in opposing the Iraq war, Michael D. has a track record of standing up to Uncle Sam. Consequently, rumor has it that American diplomats in past made it palpably clear to their Irish counterparts that he was not an acceptable choice to have responsibility for foreign affairs as a cabinet minister. On the other hand, his willingness to challenge the United States, and to fight for other unpopular causes, is what has most endeared him to the Irish political left and most appealed to something in the Irish psyche that is instinctively drawn to the side of the underdog.

While Michael D. is undoubtedly no fan of American foreign policy, I can say unequivocally as someone who lectured at the National University of Ireland, Galway, as he did for many years, and who knows countless of his former students and colleagues, that Michael D. Higgins is not anti-American. He did his postgraduate work at Indiana University, lectured in the United States for a short while and has cultivated great friendships with Americans he has met in many walks of life. Indeed, Martin Sheen, himself a former Galway university student, is a close friend and may attend the presidential inauguration.

Just because our countries are friends, it does not mean that we cannot disagree. Americans are wrong when they reflexively adopt a “you’re with us or you’re against us” posture. After all, most of us now agree with Michael D. about the Iraq war. A healthy discourse is important and Michael D, a witty conversationalist and immensely knowledgeable provocateur, shouldn’t hesitate to engage with the President of the United States when he gets the chance on the issues and causes he has devoted his life to.

Whither Seán Gallagher? While his overwhelming lead in the polls on the campaign’s last weekend withered as quickly as it grew, Gallagher still managed to garner more than half a million first preference votes. This must be regarded a very strong showing for a first time candidate about whom the Irish people knew very little, save for his appearances on the “Dragon’s Den” reality TV programme. Naturally and despite a precipitous descent in the estimation of an extraordinary swathe of the electorate that only commenced in earnest three days before Election Day, some will wonder if he has a political future.

If Gallagher were to run again for office, it would seem that his best chance would be in the Cavan-Monaghan constituency – he is a native of Cavan – where he received an impressive 45% of all first preference votes. Interestingly, he polled quite poorly in his home constituency of Louth where he received less than 30% of first preference votes and actually lost the constituency to Michael D. Higgins.

When this is contrasted with the 58% of first preference votes Michael D. received in his own home constituency, Galway West, it may give some voters elsewhere in Ireland who supported Gallagher’s presidential candidacy pause. What’s more, when Gallagher sought nominations from county and city councils for a place on the presidential ballot this summer, he was unsuccessful in Louth and couldn’t even get the support of his erstwhile Fianna Fáil party colleagues on Louth County Council. In fact, he had only one supporter on the 26 member council. If Gallagher were to seek office in future, voters could be forgiven for wondering why he seems so unpopular among those who know him best.

And as for Fianna Fáil, the election must be deemed something of a mixed blessing. Although it was widely known that Seán Gallagher was a former member of the party, his candidacy imploded when the extent of his involvement in at least one Fianna Fáil fundraiser was revealed in the campaign's final televised debate. The party brand remains quite toxic and the electorate’s distrust of the relationship between Fianna Fáil and money, either when it solicits private donations or has access to the public purse, is still visceral.

On the flip side, Fianna Fáil has to be pleased with the very strong showing of its youthful candidate, David McGuinness, in the special election to fill the seat of the late Brian Lenihan Jr. TD (Member of Irish Parliament) in the Dublin West constituency on the same day as the presidential election. McGuinness, a tireless, enthusiastic campaigner, ran a stronger than expected second and, while some of this can be attributed to a Lenihan sympathy vote in the constituency, the result indicates that Fianna Fáil can still be competitive in Dublin when it fields the right candidate. This will, no doubt, provide hope for the future.

Finally, it would be strange if some within Fianna Fáil weren’t now thinking that party leader Micheál Martin made a mistake in deciding not to contest the presidential election. MEP (Member of the European Parliament) Brian Crowley desperately wanted to contest the election from his power base in Cork. Crowley is a popular vote getter throughout the province of Munster and would certainly have polled reasonably well there. Given the positively abysmal showing of the Fine Gael candidate, MEP (Member of the European Parliament) Gay Mitchell, who received just over 6% of first preference votes, it’s likely that Crowley would have propelled Fianna Fáil to a better result than Fine Gael in the presidential election. If a Fianna Fáil candidate too, at the party’s lowest ever ebb, had finished ahead of Mitchell, it would have added even further insult to an already severe injury that Fine Gael, Ireland’s most popular political party, suffered in the election.

Many more thoughts run through my head as I consider what turned out to be a real rollercoaster ride: the 2011 Irish presidential election. More than anything else, the last week of the campaign will stay on my mind and will, to a certain extent, force me to adjust my own political calculus when analyzing future campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic. A few moments of one televised debate changed the result of an election that was to take place just three days later. Debates do matter. And three days is a long time in politics.

In the end, Michael D. Higgins, at 70 the oldest candidate in the field and perhaps its most experienced and cagey politician, probably prevailed because he treated the campaign as a marathon, not a sprint. He exudes a rare combination of intellect, exuberance, self-assuredness and warmth. These qualities served Michael D. well on what proved a long and topsy-turvy campaign trail. They will serve him equally well in Áras an Uachtaráin (Official Residence of the President of Ireland).

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