The Most Controversial Presidential Campaign Ireland Has Ever Witnessed

Bags of bitching, back-stabbing and bankruptcy – moral and otherwise – may sound more like aspects of a movie plotline than those of a presidential election but, as the old saying goes, all’s fair in love and politics. The 2011 Irish presidential election will go do down in history as the country’s most controversial and commented-on campaign to date.

As Mary McAleese’s successful two-term residence in Phoenix Park neared its end, the public began to look to the future and who may become Ireland’s 9th Head of State. Senator David Norris was the first to declare his intention to run for the highest office in the land following a social media campaign earlier this year that highlighted huge levels of support for him, particularly amongst the youth vote. Early opinion polls confirmed his popularity and labelled him the frontrunner. Much speculation ensued as to who would join Norris on October’s ballot paper – from the incumbent’s husband to a disgraced former Taoiseach to half of RTÉ’s payroll.

In the end, a motley crew of seven characters – some predicted, some not – received nominations to bid to become the first citizen of Ireland. The largest ever number of potential presidents included a politician turned poet, a Eurovision winner, a reality TV star and the former head of the IRA – an eclectic group to say the least. Initial reactions to many of the candidates were lukewarm to say the least, with certain commentators dubbing them ‘the not so magnificent seven’. The seven became six at one point in the campaign as first in became the first out when Norris withdrew from the campaign in early August following controversy regarding clemency letters he wrote in 1997 on behalf of his former partner Ezra Nawi, who had been convicted of statutory rape in Israel. However, following an outcry of public support, Norris dramatically re-entered the race in September.

Michael D Higgins was announced as the Labour candidate, Gay Mitchell was the surprise Fine Gael nominee, Sinn Féin shocked many by choosing to nominate Northern Ireland’s First Minister Martin McGuinness and, following their disastrous showing in February’s General Election, Fianna Fáil chose to not endorse any candidate. Mary Davis, Seán Gallagher and, latterly, Dana Rosemary Scallon joined Norris in the Independent ranks. Many of the candidates criticised the nomination process, with Higgins lanelling it “archaic” and McGuinness stating that people, rather than just Oireachtas members and councillors, should be able to nominate candidates. After weeks of uncertainty, all independent candidates eventually received the required level of official support. Now the race could officially begin.

Pavement pounding the length and breadth of the country was punctuated by a series of radio and television debates, with all seven candidates discussing the issues on the RTÉ News at One, The Late Late Show, Tonight With Vincent Browne, Newstalk, and, perhaps most significantly, Prime Time and The Frontline. A largely English-spoken debate was held on the country’s native language broadcaster TG4. The Prime Time debate was initially focused on Miriam O’Callaghan’s intense questioning of Martin McGuinness regarding his IRA past. During the campaign, he was criticised by victims’ families and confronted by David Kelly, son of the murdered Paddy Kelly. However, this was not the most remembered element of the broadcast. With just a few minutes remaining, Dana Rosemary Scallon unexpectedly began to read a pre-written statement regarding unreleased allegations “of a most untrue, malicious and vile nature” that she claimed were being made against a family member and would soon become public knowledge. When urged to elaborate on these allegations, Scallon refused. In the succeeding days, accusations of a paeodophilic nature were made against her brother and former campaign manager, John Brown. This was the latest in a series of setbacks for Scallon, who had just days beforehand been accused of lying to the public regarding her American citizenship.

All candidates were dogged by controversy of some sort during the race. Gay Mitchell had to repeatedly defend himself against claims that he was not the chosen candidate of his own party as it was insinuated that members of Fine Gael were refusing to get behind the former Lord Mayor of Dublin and instead favoured his Labour rival, Michael D Higgins. Mitchell’s campaign was further undermined when his tactic of negative campaigning and repeated attacks on Martin McGuinness backfired. Given the intense amounts of mud-slinging, Higgins’ biggest admission during the campaign raised little attention – the fact he had previously smoked marijuana paling in comparison to the skeletons in his competitors’ closets.  He also dismissed claims that he was too old to serve as president but did admit that, if elected, would only serve one term. Mary Davis was pressed to elaborate on whether or not her independence was tainted by her involvement with a number of state boards. On top of this, she had to deny alleged nepotism regarding her husband Julian’s PR firm. Norris once again came under fire, this time due to disability payments he received while unable to lecture at Trinity College Dublin. During this time, he remained an active and paid member of Seanad Éireann. Such setbacks paved the way for the dark horse of the competition, Dragon’s Den star Seán Gallagher.

Save for a few attempts made to link him to Fianna Fáil, Gallagher’s campaign was relatively smooth sailing. His refusal to engage in negative campaigning combined with his promise of economic encouragement and job creation endeared him to the public. His popularity was confirmed in the final number of opinion polls – which had up until then shown huge fluctuations throughout the campaign. He convincingly topped the last Ipsos MRBI poll with a 40% support rating. In the same poll, Higgins received 25%, McGuinness 15%, Norris 8%, Mitchell 6% and Davis and Scallon 3% each. Gallagher seemed unstoppable. This was all, however, to change thanks to a single utterance on The Frontline, the final TV debate of the campaign. As soon as the word ‘envelop’ left his lips, Gallagher’s fate was sealed, stamped and delivered. During the debate, he was questioned repeatedly regarding his business dealings and long-standing  association with the Fianna Fáil party – nothing particularly new there.

However, when McGuinness turned up the heat on the frontrunner sparks flew. The Sinn Féin candidate claimed to have proof that Gallagher personally received a cheque of €5,000 from a businessman in aid of FF. The latter initially denied this. Debate host Pat Kenny subsequently read out a statement from an unofficial SF Twitter account saying that the party planned to hold a press conference the following day with the supposed donor, former convict Hugh Morgan, in attendance. Much backtracking ensued with Gallagher stumbling to the point that he had to rely on the old chestnut of having “no recollection” of the alleged incident, while in the same breath referring to the envelop in which he may or may not have received the cash. The audience hissed their disapproval and McGuinness grinned like a Cheshire cat. The damage was done. Social media sites lit up in response but, as no more official polls were due to be carried out prior to polling, it remained to be seen whether or not the online outrage would transfer to a significant enough drop in his support levels to fully scupper his campaign. Michael D Higgins was now, once again, the unofficial favourite.

It’s now the day after polling and the official count began at 9am this morning. The official percentage of voters is well down on the 70% that voted in this year’s General Election but thought to be in line with previous presidential ballots, coming in at just under 50%. At polling stations yesterday, RTÉ and Red C Research asked 1,000 people how they had voted. More than a quarter of those questioned admitted to changing their minds in the final week of the campaign with 28% of voters switching first preference in the same period; 58% of voters switched from Gallagher with 71% of these people voting for Higgins instead. Half of voters who were polled said the recent controversy surrounding Gallagher affected their voting pattern.

Early tallies suggest that Higgins has indeed topped the poll or received the highest number of transfers in many areas and, save a major shift later in the day, is on course to become Ireland’s 9th President. The Labour party has already declared October 29 as ‘Michael D Day’. David Norris was the first candidate to concede defeat. He wished Higgins well and called today “A good day for Ireland”, adding that he was confident Higgins would make a great president. As Ireland looks on, the electorate hopes that such faith will be ratified.

Last-ditch Attempt to Sway Floating Voters

The seven presidential candidates will take place in a make or break debate tonight with Pat Kenny set to grill them on RTÉ’s flagship current affairs show ‘The Frontline’.

Kenny himself admitted that he is one of the thousands of floating voters still undecided as to who they will support on Thursday but said “Getting up close and personal in the TV debate will put me in an ideal position to have my mind made up by the candidates.”

Kenny feels that tonight’s debate will be the final chance for any of the other candidates to seize the presidency from Seán Gallagher or Labour’s Michael D Higgins. He added, “I don’t want brawling on the floor but I do want them to engage with each other. If candidates who are down the field don’t engage in that manner, well, they simply don’t deserve to be president.”

Frontrunner Gallagher’s links with the Fianna Fáil party appear to have not affected his swelling popularity three days before the national vote. Despite being an Independent candidate, he has deep with link the party – some of which were highlighted in a letter he sent to the heads of Fianna Fail branches in Louth in January 2009 when he was seeking their support to get back on to the party’s national executive. In the letter he documented his 30 year commitment to the party and emphasised the two years he worked with former party leader Charlie Haughey from 1985-1987 when he was the leader of Ógra Fianna Fáil.

In a late attempt to curb the seemingly unstoppable surge in support for Gallagher, Transport Minister Leo Varadkar publicly announced he would be giving his second preference vote to Higgins, behind Fine Gael’s nominee Gay Mitchell. He called for members of his party to follow suit.

For the many undecided voters, the 90-minute Frontline debate will air on RTE1 at 9.40pm tonight.

Norris Blasts ‘Betrayal’ of Irish Mortgage Holders

Independent presidential candidate David Norris has this morning spoken out against what he calls the “betrayal” of Irish people through the recent Keane Report on mortgage arrears.

Senator Norris noted how the panel who compiled the report consisted of representatives of the banks and not people from organisations such as New Beginnings, a homeowner’s advocacy group. He described this as a “horrifying example of the government putting the protection of the system… above the protection of the people.”

While making his statement outside Leinster House, Norris held a copy of the Keane Report emblazoned with the word ‘Betrayal’.

During his speech, Norris stated “A vote for me is a vote for democracy” and claimed to be the only genuine independent candidate in the election race as he has “never been part of a political party [or] been appointed to a state board”. He denied making such comments was a slur on other independent candidates such as Seán Gallagher, whose links with Fianna Fáil were a recent source of contention, and Mary Davis, who has sat on a number of state boards.

Despite fluctuations in his support, a recent Metro Poll gave him 39% of the vote while the latest Red C poll indicated he garnered just 7%, the senator is optimistic he will poll strongly on 27th October, insisting  “I intend to fight on behalf of all people of Ireland.”

‘Don’t pigeon-hole me’ – Norris

Echoing comments he made on last night’s ‘Prime Time’ debate, Senator David Norris urged the public not to “pigeon-hole” him as he is much more than a one dimensional candidate.

While being interviewed on this morning’s Ray D’Arcy show on Today FM Mr Norris conceded that many people view him as nothing more than a tripartite character – gay rights activist, Georgian architecture enthusiast and Joycean literature scholar. Valid aspects of his personality though they may be, he reminded listeners of his human rights advocacy and senatorial track record.

During the interview, he vehemently denied being “soft” regarding the age of consent and insisted that the safeguarding of children was of the utmost importance to him.

Despite the many setbacks encountered during his campaign, Senator Norris is adamant that he can once again turn the tide and regain lost ground. He was positive when Mr D’Arcy asked if he could bounce back from his recent dip in the polls – many of which now rate him as the fourth most popular candidate. He mentioned the fact he topped a recent Metro poll with 39% of the vote but admitted that such a high showing was aided by his popularity in urban areas.

If elected, Norris pledged to dedicate the first 26 months of his Presidency to individual counties in order to highlight and celebrate their various achievements.

Norris Says Controversy Is In The Past

Senator David Norris has said the people of Ireland have “moved on” from the controversy over clemency letters he wrote on behalf of his former partner.

Canvassing on Meath Street in Dublin, Senator Norris said it was time to move on.

The controversy first erupted during the summer when it emerged that Senator Norris had written a letter to an Israeli court in 1997 pleading for clemency for his former partner, Ezra Nawi, who had been found guilty of the statutory rape of a 15-year-old boy.

The controversy ended Norris presidential campaign however he stormed back and is among the frontrunners of the 2011 race for the presidency.

Senator Norris also said that he was being “muzzled” on tonight’s Late Late Show, because he wasn’t being interviewed individually as the other candidates are.

When it was pointed out that he has been on the programme on his own two weeks ago, he said that interview only addressed one subject.

The Late Late Show commences at 9.35 on RTE One and is a must see for those on the electorate. 

*Footage courtesy of The Irish Times

Norris and Dana Edge Closer To Ballot

A number of local authorities are meeting today to consider the bids of Senator David Norris and Dana Rosemary Scallon to become Presidential candidates.

So far, Laois County Council has backed Senator Norris, while Carlow County Council has nominated Ms Scallon.

Mr Norris now has the support of two local authorities, while Ms Scallon has the backing of one.

Ms Scallon won the Carlow vote by seven to zero with the rest abstaining.

The Fine Gael Chair of Carlow County Council, Thomas Kinsella, used his casting vote against Senator Norris on a motion to support him after a vote was tied five to five.

Mr Kinsella said afterwards that he felt Mr Norris still has questions to answer about a number of issues.

This morning, Laois County Council nominated Senator Norris by a margin of seven votes to four.

“I am delighted to announce that my home county of Laois has just agreed to nominate me for the Presidential race,” Senator Norris said on Twitter.

Six Fianna Fáil councillors and one Independent voted in favour of him. Four councillors, including two Fianna Fáil and one Sinn Féin, voted against him.

All members of Fine Gael on the council abstained on the vote after a meeting with Senator Norris and Fine Gael TD Charlie Flanagan.

Leaving the meeting, Senator Norris said he was delighted to have got the support of people in a county where he had several connections.

He indicated he would not be publishing any further letters of representation he had sent in the case of his ex partner Ezra Nawi because they were all shorter versions of the original letter he had published in full.

This afternoon, Ms Scallon is expected to address a scheduled meeting of Roscommon County Council.

It is expected the former MEP will receive the backing of the council.

The Independent Councillor who had proposed nominating Mr Norris has withdrawn his proposal.

Councillor John Murphy made the announcement as the County Council prepared to meet.

Councillor Murphy said he had made the decision because it appeared unlikely that the proposal would be supported by a sufficient number of councillors.

Ms Scallon has been proposed by a Fianna Fáil councillor. This proposal will go ahead.

There are 26 members of the council in Roscommon and ten Fine Gael members are likely to abstain from the vote.

This evening, a special meeting of South Dublin County Council will be held to decide whether to nominate Senator Norris.

The meeting begins at 5.15pm and the motion to nominate Senator Norris is the only item on the agenda.

Both Ms Scallon and Senator Norris need to secure the backing of four local authorities to make it onto the ballot paper.

Around 12 county councils are to meet in the next few days to decide who they will be supporting.

Earlier, Independent TD Mattie McGrath said he personally wanted to facilitate Senator Norris’ Presidential nomination, but opted not to sign the papers after reviewing the feelings of his supporters.