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.