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.

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Has Gallagher Done Enough to Salvage Campaign?

As the broadcast moratorium looms, can Seán Gallagher say or do enough to save his presidential bid before 2pm today? The Independent candidate is running out of time as he attempts to salvage a campaign that seemed impermeable just a few days ago.

Gallagher has been doing serious damage control since Monday night’s ‘Frontline’ debate on RTÉ, when Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness accused him of receiving a cheque for €5,000 for Fianna Fáíl three years ago. Gallagher’s unconvincing and inconsistent style of answering was criticised by many and and may well lead to a dip in his popularity.

Mr Gallagher claims he didn’t solicit donations for the party but last week did admit to asking acquaintances to attend a Fianna Fáil fundraiser. Subsequently he conceded that he did indeed contact convicted fuel smuggler Hugh Morgan, a man he did not know, and invited him to the €5,000-a-head dinner. The political party has refused to reveal which business people and property developers paid this fee at the fundraiser Gallagher helped to organise.

The Independent candidate has played down his past connections with Fianna Fáil throughout his campaign. His insistence that he would run a clean race and not engage in negative campaigning was made null and void when he made a counter-attack on Sinn Féin yesterday, labelling McGuinness’ accusations as an “ambush” and a “political assassination attempt” – an unfortunate, and some say deliberate, turn of phrase given McGuinness’ IRA past.

He also expressed reservations regarding the female audience member, Glenna Lynch, who questioned him about a number of his business transactions during the ‘Frontline’ debate, suggesting she may have been planted there deliberately by Sinn Féin. Ms Lynch has dismissed such a claim and labelled Gallagher a hypocrite.

Although the final official poll was carried out prior to the ‘Frontline’ broadcast, it gave Gallagher a 40% support rating – a commanding 15% above his nearest rival, Labour candidate Michael D Higgins. The Ray D’Arcy Show on Today FM this morning carried out a poll of their listeners which showed that while his rating a dropped by a few percent, Gallagher is still the frontrunner, with Higgins placed second, McGuinness third and Independent David Norris in fourth place. Whether or not the election results will follow this pattern remains to be seen.

Gallagher Embroiled In New Controversy

 

The final TV debate of the Presidential election campaign took place on RTÉ’s The Frontline last night as all candidates made a final push for votes ahead of Thursday’s poll.

The debate was marked by attacks on Independent candidate Sean Gallagher, with Martin McGuinness claiming he had been involved in collecting a sizeable cheque for Fianna Fáil.

Mr Gallagher was under pressure on a number of occasions last night.

He struggled to explain the circumstances of an irregular company loan, which he says was lodged to the wrong account.

But Mr McGuinness landed a severe blow to the Cavan native`s campaign when he claimed the Independent candidate had collected a €5,000 cheque destined for Fianna Fáil from an individual in Dundalk, Co Louth, two years ago.

Mr Gallagher initially said he had no recollection but then claimed the man in question was a fuel smuggler with links to Sinn Fèin leader Gerry Adams, before conceding there may have been an envelope handed over.

Candidates Target Gallagher At Newstalk Debate

The focus of today’s Newstalk/Google debate took on a similar theme with numerous candidates opting to have a dig at independent candidate Sèan Gallagher’s Fianna Fàil links.

Martin McGuinness argued his belief that Gallagher is still involved with the party who he said had brought the country to its knees.

“I do think that there is no doubt whatsoever that Seán has been up to his neck in Fianna Fáil,” said the Sinn Fèin candidate.

“It is not a crime for Seán to be involved with Fianna Fáil. But Fianna Fáil is the party that ran the economy into the ground. Fianna Fáil was the party that was involved in the brown envelope culture the Galway tent and involved in betraying the people of Ireland.”

Mr McGuinness also said voters must decide whether they want a representative of an establishment party elected to the Áras. 

“People can decide to continue with the same old, same old, or they can vote for someone who represents a break from the past and someone who looks to new beginnings and who wants to stand by the ordinary people of Ireland at this very difficult time.”

Labour candidate Michael D Higgins also attacked Mr Gallagher’s connection with Fianna Fáil today, saying it was up to the public to look at different backgrounds and manifestos and warned that he believed about a fifth of voters remain undecided.

“I’ve no doubt at all in my mind that all the candidates are people who love Ireland in their own way. The issue is about who has a track record of turning vision into practical reality,” the Labour candidate said.

“Every single thing I did, from being a councillor right to a TD to a minister, was turned into a reality. That’s why I have such a solid core of voters.” Mr Higgins said transfers from every source will be hugely important and he will secure them from all quarters.

Higgins latest outburst on Gallagher`s past links have become a reoccurring theme since polls put the independent candidate ahead of the chasing pack.

 

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.

Gallagher Responds To Reports About His Political and Financial Affairs

Presidential candidate Seán Gallagher has responded to reports about his financial and political affairs in the past three years after stories of his Fianna Fàil past emerged again .

One report relates to a large loan paid to him by one of his companies two years ago, while another relates to his fundraising for Fianna Fáil, a party he has sought to disassociate himself from in recent weeks.

The loan of almost €83,000 was paid to Mr Gallagher by one of his companies – Beach House Training and Consulting Limited in 2009,breaching company law in the process as it exceeded the cap for such loans set at 10% of a company’s assets.

Mr Gallagher said this had been an honest mistake and said it related to a cheque that had been lodged to the wrong account.The Dragons Den star moved the money into the correct account after been informed by his accountants last year.

In an interview on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Mr Gallagher was also asked about his role in personally inviting donors to attend a Fianna Fáil corporate fundraiser for former Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

Mr Gallagher attended the fundraiser where guests were asked to donate up to €5,000 for the dinner in Dundalk, Co Louth in summer 2008.He said this was not a secret event and he had asked three or four business people to attend, but he had no idea whether they had made a donation to the party or not.

Cavan native Gallagher formally resigned from the Fianna Fáil National Executive in January this year.

Gallagher`s Passion For Change May Lead to Success

As we enter into the final ten days of the Presidential election, it is safe to assume that Seán Gallagher is now a serious contender. In the most recent Red C poll, Gallagher has come out on top closely followed by Michael D Higgins. Undoubtedly he seems one of the more stable candidates with no emerging scandals or heated encounters with the public to date.  If the polls are to be taken as an accurate reflection of public opinion then Gallagher can remain optimistic about his chances.

As the youngest and most politically inexperienced candidate, opinions were divided on Gallagher’s suitability for the job. However, he has decidedly exploited and used to his advantage, what could have been his downfall. He reiterates that he is not a politician and has the people of Ireland at heart. This seems to have catapulted him into the public’s favour.  When his ties with Fianna Fail were questioned he insisted that his membership was in a voluntary capacity and that he was one of the grassroots members who never sat at Cabinet table and never had any involvement in decision making. His refusal to use roadside election posters earned him further kudos with the public as he described them as a “waste of taxpayer’s money”. Whilst canvassing on Baggot Street earlier this week, Gallagher chatted to people warmly and engagingly. He is clearly comfortable with questions from the public and is rarely caught out for an answer. He has successfully managed to present himself as an ordinary and extraordinary man simultaneously. When confronted with sceptical voters he points out his background in farming youth work and enterprise, making his case of understanding what the public wants and needs. If nothing else he is far removed from the old style politics of McGuinness, Mitchell and Higgins.

The Gallagher camp proudly proclaims its policy of “positive campaigning”. While scandals and criticisms have swirled around the media from the other candidates, Gallagher refused to join in the fracas insisting that “negative” is not a word in his dictionary. With the poll results, came suggestions for a head to head debate between Higgins and Gallagher, suggestions which he rejected on the grounds that it would be unfair to the other candidates. “Why would we exclude five other candidates?” he said, “We’ve been through twelve or thirteen presidential debates so far and a few more to go. I feel that would be unfair on the other five candidates.”

On the Áras 2011 debate, Gallagher suggested changing the national anthem, a suggestion strongly criticised by Martin McGuinness. Gallagher elaborated proposing an anthem that reveals our “strengths” rather than the militaristic anthem of present. Indeed it is clear that this candidate has his sights set on improving our reputation abroad, whether changing the national anthem will achieve this remains to be seen.

Undoubtedly, Gallagher is a candidate promoting change, a popular idea in these uncertain times. His focus on jobs and enterprise could sway the undecided voters to secure his election. With less than two weeks to go and the impending Frontline debate on Monday, there is still time for everything to change but for now Gallagher is surely on the right track.

 By Keelin Hughes

 

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.”

Sèan Opens Up On Fianna Fàil Past

With all the controversies that have arisen during this presidential race, one could argue that Seán Gallagher had emerged relatively unscathed. With major blows to the Norris, Scallon and McGuinness campaign’s over the last few weeks, Gallagher has managed to sail through the polls coming out hot on the heels of Gay Mitchell and Michael D. Higgins. With pledges to make jobs and enterprise primary themes if elected, he is fast becoming a major player in this presidential election.

However Gallagher has been criticized for his Fianna Fáil affiliations which he has had to defend this week. Speaking on RTE news he admitted he “abhors decisions taken by Fianna Fáil” but would not openly criticize the party saying that “condemnation” is not part of his vocabulary. He claimed that he had never kept his involvement with Fianna Fáil a secret and has always encouraged people to get involved in political parties praising the grass roots of all political parties and those dedicated to improving their communities. He condemned the way in which people in grass roots were being demonized for being a voluntary member of a political party, those who he describes as “ordinary decent people” who were not in cabinet and did not make decisions. Gallagher pointed out that he himself was one of these people, working at Fianna Fáil on a voluntary basis.

 He does not feel answerable for the mismanagement of the economy stating that it is those who were at the cabinet table who are responsible. However Gallagher is hopeful for the future “We can’t change the past. I’m not responsible for what happened in Government. But I can be responsible for what I contribute to the country now. I want to move the debate on.”

 By Keelin Hughes

 

 

Prime Time Presidential Debate – More Questions than Answers?

For the most part, the second ‘Prime Time’ presidential debate covered well-trodden ground and didn’t tell us anything new. However, there were sporadic bursts of life throughout the 90 minute exchange, including Martin McGuinness labelling Miriam O’Callaghan’s line of questioning as “stupid” and independent candidate Seán Gallagher being branded a member of the Fianna Fáil “gene pool”.

Perhaps, however, the most pivotal moment of the debate came towards its end as Dana Rosemary Scallon unexpectedly read out a statement claiming that allegations “of a most untrue, malicious and vile nature” were being made against a family member and would soon become public knowledge. When urged to elaborate on these allegations, Ms Scallon refused. Although she insisted her family had sought legal advice and would “leave no stone unturned to expose the malicious intent at the heart of these untrue allegations”. As of yet, no more details have emerged regarding her comments and what they may refer to. In a further twist, Ms Scallon will not be out on the campaign trail today.

Senator David Norris empathised with Dana during the debate as he said he understood what it was like to be the victim of a media “firestorm”.

Dana’s full statement can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFGr69dvPeM

In the earlier stages of the debate, Mr McGuinness was extensively questioned on his past association with the IRA. He took particular exception when Miriam O’Callaghan asked him how he squared his Catholic beliefs with being involved with an organisation that played a part in the murder of so many people. He said he believed that when people are being treated as second class citizens, they have the right to resist. He also labelled the suggestion that he knows specific details about the killings of individuals as “stupid”. He went on to state that he “unreservedly condemned” the killings of defence forces and Gardaí during the Troubles, adding that “A very large percentage of the Irish army are going to vote for me in this election.”

The candidates remained relatively silent when Ms O’Callaghan asked whether they had reservations with Mr McGuinness’s name being present on the ballot paper. Mr Norris stated he was “extremely glad that Martin McGuinness has abandoned violence and turned toward party political methods” while Mary Davis, when asked directly, said that McGuinness has a democratic right to stand in the election and it’s up to the people to decide his placing in the polls. When Ms Davis went on to say she didn’t see the role of the President as a political one, Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell accused her of not fully understanding the position.

Seán Gallagher denied being a closet Fianna Fáiler despite his past association with the party, whom he refused to criticise for the role they played in the country’s economic downturn. He admitted that he considered running for Fianna Fáil in last general election, but George Lee’s short-lived stint as a member of Fine Gael led him to believe he would achieve little in party politics.

When questioned, Labour’s Michael D Higgins was adamant that, if elected, he would have no issue with travelling to Israel despite his vocal support for Palestine. He said he has spent his political life promoting human rights at home and abroad.

According to the candidates, the most important roles of the President are as follows:

McGuinness: The chief responsibility of the president is to protect the constitution.

Davis: The most important power the president has is in Article 26; the ability to refer bills to the supreme court.

Gallagher: The most important powers of the president are to set a “theme” and to represent the country abroad.

Higgins: The powers in Article 13.2 are where you stamp yourself on the presidency. It is important that the president isn’t assuming the will of the parliament.

Dana: Maintaining the constitution on behalf of the people is the most important role of the president.

Norris: Being the voice of the people is the most important power of the president.

Mitchell: The single most important power the president has is the mandate from the people.