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The Irish Presidential Race – no, the Fight – for Áras an Uachtaráin

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Ireland's seven presidential candidates
I was wrong. Some weeks ago, I wrote a column for IrishCentral in which I noted that the theretofore hotly anticipated campaign to succeed President Mary McAleese had all the makings of “a damp squib.” In my defense, I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the campaign’s numerous and complex twists and turns since I wrote in late August.

The then four candidate field has expanded to seven. Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minster, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, unexpectedly announced that he was joining the race. In the wake of opinion polls indicating still widespread popular support for his presence in the campaign, Independent Senator David Norris announced that he was recommencing his candidacy that he had abandoned early in August after revelations that he had intervened in the appeal of a former lover convicted of pedophilia. And Eurovision song contest winner and former member of the European Parliament, independent Dana Rosemary Scallon, confirmed the rumors and announced that she would seek the presidency.

Since their declarations of intent, having received the support of at least twenty members of the Oireachtas (the two houses that comprise the Irish parliament) or majorities of four city/county councils, each of the three candidates has “earned” a spot on the final ballot under the arcane rules that govern the process here. McGuinness garnered the support of Sinn Fein and independent parliamentarians; Norris and Scallon each received the support of majorities of four councils. They now join Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell, Labour’s Michael D. Higgins and independents, Mary Davis and Sean Gallagher, on the ballot voters will see on October 27th.
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READ MORE:

Journalist claims Martin McGuinness is still a member of the IRA


Presidential poll shock as Norris, Mitchell vote collapses

David Norris scandals continue - news book alleges affair with young Trinity student
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With nominations now closed, the official campaign has begun in earnest. It has swiftly become a hotly contested, sometimes negative and very personal affair. Unsurprisingly, a great deal of controversy swirls around the candidacies of McGuinness and Norris. For very different reasons, each man’s past words and deeds are complicated by some and revolting for others. In the face of unrelenting questioning, criticism and accusation by implication, fanned to no small extent by a media that has been gifted an unprecedented campaign to cover, McGuinness and Norris have, at times, risen to the occasion and, at others, performed poorly. Dana Rosemary Scallon, the other “new” candidate, is a conservative Catholic with limited appeal in today’s Ireland and hasn’t shown much yet, but does have a devoted, albeit small, following.

Fine Gael is Ireland’s most popular political party and, consequently, has the most to lose in the presidential election. Its candidate, long time elected official and party apparatchik Gay Mitchell, was not the favourite of the party leadership. Doubtless sensing an opening in the not insignificant “anybody but Sinn Fein” segment of the electorate, however, Mitchell and Fine Gael have gone very negative on McGuinness since his entry into the race. The party’s chief whip, Paul Kehoe TD (member of Irish parliament), even tweeted that McGuinness’s assertion that he would only take the average industrial wage if elected rang hollow from someone with access to the proceeds of multimillion pound Northern Bank raid carried out by the IRA in December 2004.

Labour’s Michael D. Higgins, former Galway TD (member of Irish parliament), poet, human rights activist and academic, was and remains the frontrunner in the race since the three new entries. The consensus in the media and among the pundits has been that he has performed consistently well since the official campaign begun. But the new entries have made his path to victory more complicated and less certain.

The other two candidates, independents Mary Davis and Sean Gallagher, the former citing her experience in heading the Special Olympics, the latter his track record of achievement as a successful businessman in the face of struggle against disability, have sought to define themselves as being outside the political realm. Davis and Gallagher have attracted some support, but they have been dogged by their pasts which reveal that both are more “on the inside” than they would have the electorate believe. Specifically, Davis was appointed by the government to a number of paid and unpaid boards, as well as to the Council of State, a body that advises the president on the exercise of discretionary powers. And Gallagher was a member of the Fianna Fáil national executive.

How are things likely to shake out over the next three weeks in the run-up Election Day? The second of three televised debates – the first was a rather dull affair – provides some clues. These debates provide a chance for the electorate to see and hear the seven candidates under pressure. Given the limited powers of the presidency, the corresponding relative irrelevance of a president’s political ideology and the fact that the president is the only public official elected by the entire Irish republic, debates and what they reveal about the candidates are likely to play a far greater role in this election than in an Irish general election.

The second debate was shaped by the irascible persona and probing questioning of the moderator, journalist and broadcaster Vincent Browne. Five considered observations from a lively and entertaining affair and its aftermath follow.

First, Gay Mitchell stuck to the plan and attacked Martin McGuinness repeatedly. His attacks were compounded by a surreal moment in which Vincent Browne piled book on top of book as evidence that McGuinness was a member of the IRA until very recently, despite his claim that he left the organisation in 1974.

The most recent poll, carried out for the Irish Times, indicates that Mitchell’s tactic is not working and reflects the resiliency of McGuinness’s candidacy. Because Mitchell’s “hell for leather” attacks don’t seem to be working, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see his path to winning the presidency. On the flip side, McGuinness remains in with a chance. The McGuinness camp will certainly be hopeful that pointed anti-Republican attacks by Fine Gael’s Mitchell actually will help McGuinness with “green” Fianna Fáil voters, whose support they badly need.
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READ MORE:

Journalist claims Martin McGuinness is still a member of the IRA


Presidential poll shock as Norris, Mitchell vote collapses

David Norris scandals continue - news book alleges affair with young Trinity student
-------------------
Second, David Norris, in both his preparation for and responses to the inevitable debate questions about his refusal to produce further documents he submitted on behalf of his former lover to an Israeli court, was lacking. Norris claims that he cannot release the letters on the basis of legal advice he received from a lawyer in Israel. Prior to the debate, Vincent Browne contacted legal academics at Tel Aviv University who informed him that there is no basis in Israeli law whatsoever to withhold the documents. When this was put to him, Norris responded that lawyers disagree all the time. When asked who gave him the advice, Norris declined to answer. The unbelievable answer he offered to the first query and his refusal to answer the second, together with the alternatively incoherent and arrogant fashion in which he sought to dismiss the line of questioning, is likely to engender serious doubt among voters. First, is he actually relying on legal advice or did he make it up? And second, what is in the documents? The Irish Times poll indicates that support for his candidacy is in freefall.

Third, Dana Rosemary Scallon was a non-factor. Clearly trying to capitalise on what anti-European Union sentiment there is in Ireland, she made a number of rambling points with constitutions in her hand that were difficult to follow and largely off the mark. She is last in the Irish Times poll and it’s hard to see her appealing to anywhere near the number of voters necessary to compete.

Fourth, Sean Gallagher and Mary Davis had high points and low points in the course of the debate. Both are trying to position themselves as outsiders, but their pasts make that difficult, as Vincent Browne pointed out at every possible turn. And Davis was especially weak when questioned why she had accused Fine Gael of engaging in negative politics. Yet Gallagher’s optimism and “can do” attitude appears to be resonating with voters, especially those from the entrepreneurial class that emerged in the Celtic Tiger years. His candidacy seems to be gathering momentum and he sits in second place in the Irish Times poll. The extent to which voters from his former party opt for him, as opposed to McGuinness, may, in the end, determine his chances of winning the presidency.

Fifth, Michael D. Higgins was the clear winner and remains the frontrunner. He leads the Irish Times poll. His answers to the questions posed at the debate manifested the best understanding of the presidential role and a clear vision for his presidency. Additionally, he managed to stay above the fray, while the others quibbled to no avail at times. Most importantly, when pushed by Vincent Browne, Higgins was upfront about the fact that he was not proud of everything he had done in public life, but has always tried to abide by core principles.

While Michael D. Higgins remains the favourite, there is volatility in the electorate and many voters remain undecided. The seven candidates won’t just be running; they’ll be fighting for the Áras. It’s going to be a fascinating three weeks. For fans of electoral politics, Ireland’s 2011 presidential campaign has turned out to be anything but “a damp squib.” Watch this space.

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