As I write this on Friday lunchtime, Irish time, it is looking likely that Michael D Higgins will be the ninth President of Ireland.
Although official counts will not be announced for a few hours yet, early tallies are suggesting Michael D surging ahead, with erstwhile poll favorite Sean Gallagher in a distant second and Martin McGuinness in third. According to a Red C telephone poll carried out on behalf of RTÉ, the last week of the campaign has been the difference between a two horse race and a near assured victory for Higgins, with over half of the 28% of people who switched their vote in the last few days drifting away from Gallagher.
Given the scope and function of the Presidency, such campaigns always seem unusually hard-hitting and dramatic. In 1990 there was Brian Lenihan’s “mature recollection” and Pee Flynn’s outrageous comments about Mary Robinson’s new found interest in her family. In 1997 there was Adi Roche and allegations of bullying, and Mary McAleese being a tribal time bonb. And this year, perhaps because of the volume of candidates, the mud flew higher and faster. There was Norris and his letters, Davis and her state boards, Higgins and his age, McGuinness and his IRA past, Mitchell and his general disagreeability, Dana and her family feud, and the fact her husband and brother drove on a puncture.
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And then there was Sean Gallagher. As with Lenihan, it wasn’t so much the charges that were thrown at him so much as the way he reacted that precipitated a turn away in support. His responses to McGuinness’ accusations on The Frontline, accusations about Fianna Fail and fundraising he really should have prepared for, were all over the place. In the ensuing melee, he gifted phrases like “no recollection”, “envelope” and “bagman for Fianna Fáil”. His reaction to Frontline audience questioner Glenna Lynch, the objectivity of whom he tried to question, was disastrous.
But at the end of the day, Gallagher’s connections to Fianna Fáil, or the apparently “money resting in my account” state of his finances, weren’t in and of themselves reasons to vote against him. The fact he was a stunningly uninspiring candidate who, to quote the template for Presidents everywhere, Jed Bartlet, “made being unengaged into a Zen-like thing” should have been enough. And yet, it took a coven full of Galway Races Tent incantations to finally put people off him.
The Presidency isn’t the only vote going down today of course, with a by-election and two referenda also being counted. While Labour look good in Dublin West, the referenda are likely to go 1-1, with the Judges Pay referendum passing and the Oireachtas Inquiry referendum getting defeated quite decisively. In other words, today has been a complete cataclysm for Fine Gael. Failing to get a second TD in Dublin West is one thing, but failing to pass a key piece of legislative reform is a big dent for them. And Gay Mitchell potentially finishing this election on single figures is wading in to condiments poured on cuts territory.
There’s many hours to go before we know for sure and certain what’s going on, but at this stage there can be little doubt that Michael D Higgins is set to take up residence in Aras An Uachtarain. There’s less doubt still that he’ll do a terrific job when that declaration is made official.