by Frank Schnittger
Sun Jul 31st, 2011 at 09:49:09 AM EST
An election for the Presidency of Ireland will be held on 27th. October, and the field of candidates is beginning to take shape. It is difficult to make the case that European Tribune readers should be interested in this election because the office is largely a ceremonial one, and one of limited significance in a larger European context. It used to be viewed as something of a retirement home for retired Prime or Cabinet ministers (the President lives in a magnificent mansion in Dublin's Phoenix Park) but the popular significance of the office was transformed by our last two Presidents.
However the current campaign has also raised broader issues around the appropriate limits of public sexual morality and the representations that public office holders can legitimately make on behalf of their partners, friends and constituents.
Mary Robinson was elected President in the wake of a long struggle against conservative forces in the areas of women's equality, contraception, divorce, and the interference of the state (acting as a proxy for the Catholic Church) in what should be private matters. The election of Mary McAleese, who hails from Belfast, gave some recognition to the Catholic nationalist minority in Northern Ireland who felt they had been abandoned and forgotten when the Irish state was set up to their exclusion.
Both were elected amid considerable controversy - Mary Robinson, because her feminist views were not yet embraced by the establishment, and Mary McAleese, because she was seen in some quarters as dangerously close to Northern Irish Republican paramilitaries. Both succeeded in becoming almost universally popular and redefining, to some extent, what Ireland was all about. Mary Robinson's term can be seen as bringing the gross marginalisation of women to an end (although full equality is still some way off). The Queen's visit last May, the highlight of Mary McAleese's term, can be seen as bringing centuries of Anglo-Irish antagonism to a formal end.
The current campaign is being riven by controversy concerning the candidate currently leading in the polls - prominent Gay rights campaigner David Norris - over letters he wrote in support of a former partner convicted of a statutory rape of a 15 year old Palestinian boy in Israel in 1997 and an interview he gave to a restaurant critic, in 2002, in which he appeared to extol the virtues of classical Greek society in which older men sometimes initiated adolescent boys in the practice of sex. However he is running for election in modern Ireland, not ancient Greece, and given the trauma surrounding child sexual abuse that is currently convulsing Ireland, both controversies could be very damaging to his campaign.
Norris 'remains committed' to presidential campaign
A letter written on Seanad notepaper in which the Trinity Senator seeks clemency for Mr Yizhak was published online and in some newspapers today.
In the letter, Mr Norris describes Mr Yizhak as "an intelligent, honest trustworthy, good and moral person." It goes on to claim that Mr Yizhak was "lured into a carefully prepared trap" and had "unwisely" pleaded guilty to the charges against him
Director of communications Jane Cregan and director of elections Derek Murphy are among those to resign from Mr Norris's campaign team following the latest revelations.
In an interview in today's Sunday Independent the Senator admitted his campaign was in trouble but said he was "absolutely committed" to running for the presidency.
Mr Norris' campaign was embroiled in controversy earlier in the summer when comments he made about sexual activity between older and younger men and boys in Magill magazine in January 2002 resurfaced.
The interview with restaurant critic and columnist Helen Lucy Burke was circulated to county councillors in May following Mr Norris' announcement that he was going to seek a nomination to run for the presidency.
Ms Burke said Mr Norris' "dangerous" and "shocking" views on sexuality made him an unsuitable person to be president of Ireland.
Mr Norris told the Irish Times at that stage that he had engaged in an academic discussion on sexual relations between older men and younger men and boys arising from Plato's Symposium and ancient Greek classical literature.
"I made a distinction between paedophilia and pederasty, which is a totally different thing. To the average person it would not make any difference I suppose but to me it did because I knew what I was talking about. That got mixed up and stayed mixed up.
"I abhor with every fibre of my being the idea of interference with children, sexual abuse, physical abuse and emotional abuse. My record on that speaks for itself."
The controversy was revived a few weeks later when an interview Mr Norris gave to the Daily Mail last year covering much of the same ground was reprinted.
While they set back Mr Norris' prospects of getting a nomination from county councils he appeared to have recovered in recent weeks following an Irish Times poll that showed him leading the presidential race with 25 per cent support.
There are, of course, questions being asked as to why letters written in 1997 and an interview given almost 10 years ago have suddenly been brought back into the public domain by a pro-Israeli blogger and by the restaurant critic who conducted the interview over a meal. It certainly seems plausible that Norris waxed somewhat over lyrical in his praise of the sexual practices of ancient Greece - allegedly in an "academic" context - and his letters in support of his former partner is in line of a long tradition of Irish parliamentarians writing character references and letters of support for friends, colleagues, and constituents in trouble the world over. Many aren't worth the paper they are written on, but Norris' submission to the Israeli High Court is somewhat presumptuous and extraordinarily detailed. It failed, however, to express any sympathy with the victim of the crime.
There is no suggestion that Norris has himself practised pederasty or condoned paedophilia, and indeed his record of campaigning in support of gay and children's rights at a time when homosexuality was illegal and child abuse was swept under the carpet is much admired. I find it quite extraordinary the degree to which Norris' campaign had recovered from the previous interview revelations to retain his leadership in opinion polls, but these latest revelations may be the coup de grace. So far Norris' campaign to achieve a nomination for the election through getting a (constitutional) minimum of four County or City Councils to support him has been incompetent, and his alternate pathway to securing a nomination - obtaining the support of 20 members of Parliament - has been stuck at 15. It will now be increasingly difficult for him to achieve that 20 vote minimum to achieve a nomination without which he cannot stand as a candidate.
With the success of Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese the office of President has become an important symbol of national Unity and of where, the Irish people see ourselves going in the future. It seems unlikely that David Norris, for all his much admired courage in fighting for the rights of those who had been suppressed in Irish society, will be able to overcome concerns that he has been less than discrete and astute in the expression of his own views. Certainly his management of his own campaign has been extremely amateurish to date, and several key members of his campaign team have now resigned.
We are then, however, left with a relatively uninspiring field of candidate of which I add this potted summary for your delectation:
With the demise of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael are the dominant ruling party in Ireland, and continue to enjoy a honeymoon in the public affections with 38% support. Ordinarily one would therefore expect the Fine Gael candidate to win the election, but Fine Gael has never won a Presidential election campaign before. John Bruton, former Taoiseach and EU ambassador to the USA would probably have been a shoe-in for the nomination had he wanted the job. In the event, four candidates vied for the Fine Gael Nomination:
- Pat Cox, former President of the European Parliament, whose main problem is that he was a member of the now defunct neo-liberal Progressive Democrats, then an Independent, and has only just joined Fine Gael, leading to resentment among long time party members that he is only using them to boost his chances. In addition the "European" brand isn't what it used to be in Ireland.
- Gay Mitchell, a European Parliament member for Dublin and sometime junior Government minister. Some joke that Gay is the second gay in the race, but in political terms, Gay is as straight as they come: A hard working populist constituency worker who has few achievements to his name, despite a long career in politics.
- Mairead McGuinness, a European Parliament member for Leinster and former journalist, with few discernible achievements in either role.
- Avril Doyle, former member of the Irish and European Parliaments and member of a long time prominent Fine Gael family dynasty. Her detractors joked that she would have to downsize her living accommodation if she won the Presidency, as the President's Mansion is apparently somewhat smaller than her own...
In the event, Gay Mitchell won the Fine Gael nomination without creating much excitement outside of die hard Fine Gael supporters particularly in his Dublin base. He currently stands at 21% in the polls, only about half his party's support, and just behind David Norris on 25%.
Labour had three candidates for their nomination:
- Michael D. Higgins, an native Irish speaker, poet, sociologist, author and Cabinet Minister with a long history of supporting progressive causes, but few discernible achievements in Office. Some feel that, at 70, he is somewhat old for the job.
- Fergus Finlay, former Chef the Cabinet of the Labour party, "spin doctor", author, commentator, journalist and head of a prominent children's charity. Perhaps Ireland's answer to Alastair Campbell, although also a very personable and popular commentator.
- Kathleen O'Meara, a women of no great distinction. It is difficult to see why a politician who has failed to win even one general election and who has no particular achievements outside politics should see herself as qualified for the Office, other than as part of an affirmative action programme for women candidates.
Michael D. Higgins won the nomination and currently stands third in the Polls, at 18%, in line with Labour party support. He is also the most "transfer friendly" of the candidates, however, and might now become the favourite.
Still toxic in the polls, Fianna Fail would prefer not to give the electorate another opportunity to humiliate them just yet. Memories of their last period in office are still too raw. Former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, is said to have wanted the job, but his unpopularity is such that Fianna Fail have run a mile from nominating him. Two other candidates have expressed an interest:
- Eamon O'Cuiv, grandson of Eamon De Valera, former Taoiseach and President, and former Cabinet Minister for "Craggy Island", also known as the Department for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht.
- Brian Crowley, Member of the European Parliament, whose chief achievement appears to be becoming a member of the European Parliament despite his disability (he is wheelchair bound following an accident).
At this stage it is not clear whether Fianna Fail will contest the election or support any other candidate, but at 11% in the polls, their leading candidate, Eamon O'Cuiv, does not exactly inspire confidence that he can spark a revival of Fianna Fail's fortunes...
At this stage it seems unlikely that Sinn Fein will nominate a candidate or support any other. I had a somewhat mischievous letter published in the Irish Independent last January (prior to the General Election) suggesting they should nominate David Norris:
Sinn Fein should nominate Norris - Letters, Opinion - Independent.ie
I see the Red C/Paddy Power opinion poll shows Senator David Norris to be the most popular choice for president ahead of Mairead McGuinness, Bertie Ahern, Fergus Finlay and Michael D Higgins.
His difficulty is going to be in securing a constitutional nomination to run in the election, as this requires the support of 20 members of the Oireachtas, or four county or city councils. Up until now, this has meant that only Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and (sometimes) Labour have had the wherewithal to nominate a candidate, and they generally use this opportunity to nominate one of their own.
However, Mary Robinson was technically an independent when nominated by Labour as she had resigned from the party over the Anglo-Irish Agreement and so there is a precedent for a party nominating a non-member.
Would this not be a glorious opportunity for Sinn Fein and others to demonstrate their non-sectarian and non-discriminatory credentials by nominating an independent, Church of Ireland, and openly gay campaigner to run in the election?
Opinion polls show Sinn Fein and a variety of independents and smaller parties to be in line to achieve significantly more than 20 seats after the next General Election.
How much more likely would they be to reach that target if they were to announce, in advance, their intention to nominate Mr Norris -- the most popular, independent, and widely respected potential candidate -- for the presidential election?
It is time we broke the stranglehold of the established parties on our political processes and appointments. The electorate deserve a wider choice, and at the moment that choice is most likely to be Mr Norris should he be given the opportunity to stand.
Two independents now look as if they will achieve sufficient support from County Councils to be nominated to stand in the election.
- Seán Gallagher, entrepreneur and panellist on the Dragons' Den television programme and former member of the Fianna Fáil National Executive. Down playing his Fianna Fail roots as much as possible, he appears to believe that his TV profile allied to an unremarkable business career qualifies him for the job.
- Mary Davis, disability rights campaigner and best known as organiser of the very successful 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games. Mary would complete a hat-trick of successive Presidents called Mary with a strong profile in voluntary and community organisations.
Niall O'Dowd, New York based journalist and publisher, confident of President Clinton and high profile "Irish American" attempted to gain a nomination on the grounds that he could represent the Irish diaspora.
I wrote an unpublished letter to the editor on his candidacy as follows:
Many thanks for publishing a well written piece by Bruce Morrison (23rd. June) on Nial O'Dowd's possible candidancy for the Presidency. It is a welcome corrective to the provo loving, Britain bashing, and misty-eyed adherents of Glocca Morra caricature painted by your former correspondent, Walter Ennis (15th. June).
O'Dowd's candidacy may have uncomfortable resonances of the returned Yank coming to teach the locals a thing or two, and if we put the "selling Brand Ireland" function of the Presidency too brazenly to the forefront, we are reducing the dignity of the office. Chief executive of Enterprise Ireland or An Bord Failte it is not.
Having said that, the Presidency doesn't have an awfully big Raison D'etre in and of itself, as many commentators have noted, given its very limited constitutional powers. It is very much up to whoever is elected to make something meaningful of the office.
For many people, Mary Robinson's election signalled the dawn of a more inclusive and progressive society where women could become equals. Mary McAleese helped to discharge an obligation to give some recognition to the many in the North of Ireland who had felt excluded by the Treaty. David Norris could do the same for the LGBT community and others who have felt marginalised because of their non-conformity to very restrictive social norms..
But O'Dowd could do something to discharge our obligations to those we often forced to emigrate from this isle. It is not so much what they can now do for us in our hour of need, but also what we still owe them. A vote for recent emigrants would be a good start - as is the case for emigrants from most other European states. But why not also some representation, if not in the Senate, then perhaps, if only to make the point, in the Presidency itself?
At the very least, O'Dowd's candidacy would strengthen the field and widen the choice for voters. It is legitimate to define ourselves not just by those who happen to be resident on this island at the present time.
But please spare us too much of "what Irish America can do for us" talk. If anything, we owe them for forcing them out.
And even if we are currently at a low ebb, we do not want to put out the begging bowl again. This crisis can only be resolved by we ourselves, for ourselves, not by our European "partners", and not by our Irish American kinsfolk.
If anything, the Presidency has to be symbol of our self-sufficiency, pride in what we are, and sovereignty: Not our dependency on others no matter how interdependent sovereign nations have now in reality become.
So fine man he undoubtedly is, I probably ultimately wouldn't vote for him, even if I would welcome his addition to the ballot paper. The real question is: do we have anybody clearly better on offer? And isn't this the real sign of our current poverty in intellect and spirit?
As the letter indicated, we are not spoiled for choice at the moment. O'Dowd subsequently withdrew his campaign on the grounds that he didn't think he could secure a nomination. Norris may be fatally wounded by his indiscretions and inept campaign management. John Bruton didn't want the job. Pat Cox, the only other candidate who had held a major office before, has failed to secure a nomination.
However Mary McAleese wasn't a particularly well known Broadcaster and college Professor before she was elected, and has ended up doing a good job. The real problem is perhaps that the Office has so few real constitutional powers, and so it tends to attract "personality" candidates of little intellectual or political achievement. It looks as if the Office might descend back into the retirement home it once was. Ireland has lost its way, and it is perhaps only natural that the holder of the office of President should reflect that. However that would be a pity given what the last two Presidents achieved. We should not underestimate the importance of having a functioning democracy in our country, and the Presidency is part of that system.
If we were to go back 15 years, which of us hasn't said and done things which were never intended for prime time and which we would now regret - especially in defence of a loved one, or over a bottle of wine. The question is: should a different standard be applied to potential Heads of State who are supposed to be wise and popular figures a large majority of people can identify with and be proud to have representing them abroad?
And is Norris really as opposed to pederasty as he now claims to be when it has become inconvenient to publicly hold such views? Have the child abuse scandals made us hypersensitive and even puritanical over all things connected with adolescents and children? I don't doubt that Norris has never harmed anyone, but his comments could be misconstrued as self-justification by those that do. Paedophiles are notoriously sophisticated at making their victims feel complicit in the process, and at persuading themselves that they are only extending paternalistic care and love.
While I would have very much wanted a President who could have continued to push the boundaries of tolerance and acceptance towards those previously discriminated against, I am now reluctantly coming to the conclusion that Norris is a man of great past struggles rather than a representative or iconic figure for the future.
The trouble is, we are then left with a very mixed bunch. Michael D Higgins would be a somewhat romantic throwback to an era of compassionate socialism and Mary Davis an embodiment of successful community and voluntary activism; Gay Mitchell a good constituency worker and SeŠn Gallagher a symbol of the pervasiveness of reality TV. Perhaps Bob Geldof could be persuaded to do a gig in the Park, or would Bono become tax resident in Ireland to take up the job?
At least that would fund the Presidency and much else...