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Musings on a rollercoaster ride - the 2011 Irish Presidential election

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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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