by Frank Schnittger
Thu Sep 29th, 2011 at 05:25:01 PM EST
The Irish Presidential campaign finally enters its formal campaign phase with the deadline for valid nominations closing at 12.00 noon yesterday. Polling day is the 27th. October. A record 7 candidates have managed to reach the minimum threshold for nomination - the support of 20 members of either house of parliament or four county councils. The office of President itself is largely a ceremonial one so the campaign focus is on personalities and on social/moral/value issues which tells us much about how Irish voters see themselves and want to see themselves represented in Ireland and beyond.
The three most significant events in the lead up to the campaign were the failure of Fianna Fail - the major party of Government since the founding of the state - to nominate any candidate; the nomination by Sinn Fein of Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland; and the resurrection of the campaign by David Norris who had earlier withdrawn his candidacy in the face of a controversy surrounding letters he had written to the Israeli High Court in support of a clemency plea for his former partner on a charge of statutory rape of a Palestinian minor.
The campaign seems destined to be dominated by controversies surrounding McGuinness' former role as an IRA commander, and Norris' judgement in supporting a former partner on statutory rape charges. However the range of candidates on offer is likely to confer a significance to the campaign out of all proportion to the importance of the Office of President itself. The seven declared candidates (in order of their level of first preference support in a recent opinion poll in brackets) are as follows:
David Norris, Independent, (21%)
Instrumental in the elimination of discrimination against gays in Ireland and a long time champion of civil and human rights generally. I have mixed feelings about his candidacy and feel he will do well on first preferences but lose out to a blander candidate on transfers of lower preference votes. However, the very fact that he retains substantial support in the wake of the scandal surrounding his views on pederasty and support for a former partner convicted of statutory rape in Israel is a sign of how far Irish public morality has moved in the past two decades. He deserves a significant amount of the credit for that change, and if nothing else, will enliven what could have been a very dull campaign.
Michael D. Higgins, Labour, (18%)
A long-standing Labour member of parliament and cabinet minister, Michael D., as he is popularly known, has a distinguished record on human rights issues and has also written books as a sociologist and poet. Now 70 years of age, his candidacy has uncomfortable echoes of the time when Áras an Uachtaráin - the Presidential Mansion - was seen as a retirement home for senior politicians. However it would be unfair to typecast him as a typical establishment figure and he is likely to do well on transfers of lower preference votes.
Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein,(16%)
Together with Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness has been the key leader of Sinn Fein and leading architect of the Peace Process. He has never hidden his early membership of the IRA but there is controversy as to how prominent he was in its military activities - with many security briefings describing him as its Chief of Staff. Although many of the founding members of the Irish state and prominent members of early governments had backgrounds in the fight for independence and 1922 civil war, many regard his candidacy as inappropriate as the President is titular head of the Irish Army which was only so recently at war with the IRA. He may not do well on transfers of lower preference votes, but his candidacy is a brilliant coup by Sinn Fein exploiting the failure of Fianna Fail to nominate a candidate and could well allow Sinn Fein to supplant Fianna Fail as the third largest party in the state at the next general election.
Mary Davis, Independent, (13%)
A prominent disability campaigner and CEO of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games, Mary Davis' main handicap is that many feel that three Presidents in a row named Mary might be a bit much! (She would be following in the footsteps of Presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese). However she is politically savvy, genuinely independent, and very transfer friendly, so she may well be the dark horse of the campaign.
Gay Mitchell, Fine Gael, (13%)
Gay Mitchell is a socially conservative working class politician in a middle class dominated Fine Gael party who upset the party leadership by challenging their preferred nominee for the election - Pat Cox, former President of the European Parliament. Never a Cabinet Minister, he has nevertheless been a reasonably active member of the European Parliament and is a proven vote getter in his Dublin bailiwick. With Fine Gael's popular support still at c. 40% in the polls, he has failed to inspire even his own party's core vote but the presence of Norris and McGuinness on the ballot paper is sure to mobilise more conservative Fine Gael voters and I would expect him to poll considerably better than current opinion polls indicate.
Sean Gallagher, Independent, (11%)
At 49, the youngest candidate in the race, Sean Gallagher is running as a former farmer, youth worker, community activist, entrepreneur, and current reality TV personality whilst downplaying the fact that he was, until last year, a member of the Fianna Fail national executive and their Director of Elections in his local constituency. The Fianna Fail brand has become so toxic in the wake of the banking scandals that Fianna Fail have failed to nominate a candidate of their own to avoid humiliation and Sean Gallagher will probably get much of their residual vote whilst claiming to be running as an Independent.
Dana Rosemary Scallon, Independent, (6%)
Dana is a former Eurovision Song Contest winner, MEP, and conservative Christian broadcaster in the USA who received 14% of the vote in the last contested Irish Presidential election in 1997. Although there is undoubtedly still a strong social conservative vote in Ireland which will be energised by the presence of Norris and McGuinness on the ballot paper, she has been languishing in the polls probably because she is seen as something of a relic from a bygone age when conservative Catholicism was the unquestioned prevailing ruling ideology of the land. Her transfers will probably go mainly to McGuinness (a fellow northerner) and Gay Mitchell, another relatively socially conservative candidate.
The 7 candidates provide quite a wide spectrum of political views ranging from the nationalist left of Martin McGuinness and the traditional left of Michael D. Higgins to the socially progressive David Norris and the more conservative Dana and Gay Mitchell. Because this is a single transferable vote election where voters vote 1,2,3 in order of their preference, the final outcome is likely to be determined by 4, 5, 6 and 7th. preference votes which tends to favour the blander and more centrist candidates who do not actively repel centrist or moderate voters. Opinion polls in the early stages of a presidential campaign are notoriously inaccurate guides of final voting behaviour, and any of the top five candidates above probably still have a realistic chance of being elected.
In many ways this election is but a distraction from the very real economic and political problems facing the nation, and yet the campaign will undoubtedly contribute to a sense that the Irish polity is still capable of generating the democratic legitimacy which has played a significant role in preventing riots in the street as in Greece. If Norris is elected, he may be the only openly gay head of state in the World. If McGuinness is elected it will confer legitimacy to a recent urban guerilla campaign and set Sinn Fein up to replace Fianna Fail as a major force in Irish politics. Mary Davis would continue a recent tradition of strong, independently minded women in the highest office in the land and Michael D. Higgins would help to cement the rise of Labour as the second largest party in the state. A success for Gay Mitchell would provide a further popular endorsement for the relatively conservative policies of the Fine Gael led government.
The Office of President may not, of itself, be particularly powerful, but the campaign and result of this election will give an interesting insight into how the Irish polity is developing in response to the current economic and political crisis in Ireland and Europe.