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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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.

Mitchell questions poll results

Gay Mitchell has again rejected the findings of recent polls claiming that the large fluctuations between results make the results “unbelievable”.

The Fine Gael candidate first made the claims in the wake of a recent Red C poll that saw his support drop to 8% and reiterated his scepticism while canvassing today in Cork City.

“I’m not 20 points behind anybody. If you look at those polls, they are absolutely without precedent, swinging 18 to 19 per cent at one time. In the last general election 40 per cent of people decided in the last week how they were going to vote and it’s even more in the presidential election.”

Mr Mitchell was supported in his assertion by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who argued that the poll results were not reflected in their dealings with the electorate.

“I don’t believe these polls at all from the evidence that I have from the days I’ve been on this campaign with Gay Mitchell and his wife, Norma. The people now understand what they want in the presidency of Ireland given its place in our constitution. Gay Mitchell has set out his stall and has been elected by the people in Dublin at local, national and international level for 30 years and has shown leadership in that.”

The candidate and his party leader have been canvassing hard in the last couple of days, even venturing into an Ann Summers lingerie shop in a desperate bid to drum up support.

The leader also played down claims that they had entered into an agreement with the Labour Party to counter the growing popularity of independent candidate, Sean Gallagher.

“My interest is in Gay Mitchell. I will talk to the Tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party about arrangements for the presidency but our campaign is about Gay Mitchell who has gone about the country and put out his credentials, his experience and his qualifications for the job.”

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.

Mitchell denies “divisive” claims

Gay Mitchell denied accusations that his anti-abortion stance would cause him to be considered a “divisive” President.

Mitchell was challenged on his views during the Live Prime Time debate, chaired by Miriam O’Callaghan who also asked the former Lord Mayor of Dublin to explain his association with Alveda King, a relative of Martin Luther King and radical anti-abortion campaigner.

The Presidential hopeful claimed that his would be an inclusive Presidency that would concentrate on changing Ireland’s image abroad.

“I will persuade people that Ireland is open for business and is on the cusp of a massive recovery if the right decisions are taken.”

The Fine Gael candidate attempted to capitalise on Sean Gallagher’s reluctance to identify with Fianna Fail by appealing to the grass roots membership of the party to back him in his quest to succeed Mary McAleese as the ninth President of the Ireland.

“Fianna Fail`s footsoldiers contributed alot to democracy what I am saying to them is this if anyone is disowning you here vote for me.” said the candidate in a direct attempt to hoover up votes of dissaffected grass roots membership of the former ruling party.

He also was forced to deny persistant rumours that his own party were not fully behind his candidacy and claimed that he had the full backing of the parliamentary party.

Mitchell criticised over Commonwealth comments

Gay Mitchell is once again under fire following comments he made about the possibility of Ireland rejoining the British Commonwealth. Speaking during yesterday’s presidential debate on Today FM’s ‘The Last Word’, Mr Mitchell said he was open to such a possibility “if it was the price of a united Ireland”.

Unsurprisingly his view was coolly received by Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness who labelled Mitchell’s musings as “pathetic”. He added: “We’re a Republic, we’re very proud to be a Republic, and I don’t think we want to have our President be subservient to any king or queen from anywhere else in the world.”

Earlier, Independent candidate Mary Davis vioced her anger at Mr Mitchell’s seemingly dismissive comments made in relation to the Special Olympics.

This bout of criticism is the latest in a long line of negative press for the Fine Gael candidate whose campaign has hit a series of stumbling blocks in the last few weeks. Mr Mitchell is lagging behind in the polls at present and the public backing by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny has so far failed to boost his flagging campaign.

While canvassing in Galway recently, the pair were heckled by members of the Irish Turf Cutters and Contractors Association at Tuam Mart. Chants of “no turf, no votes” rang out, led by Independent TD Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan. The protest refers to planned EU access restrictions to bogs countrywide.

Association chairman Michael Fitzmaurice insisted that Gaeltacht Minister Jimmy Deenihan could no longer be trusted to deal with the issue of turf-cutting rights, maintaining he “went behind our backs” during negotiations.

Garda had to clear a path for Mr Kenny to move through the crowd.

Internal Rumblings See Mitchell Slipping Away

A Fine Gael TD has said the party are urgently trying to “save face” after a second opinion poll in as many days showed their candidate Gay Mitchell’s bid lies in tatters. 

Mitchell’s popularity has slumped dramatically after appearances on the Late Late Show and on the TV3 debate. The Dublin native is now ranked second last in the running to be the next president. 

Internal rumblings are heightening divisions within the party with rumours surfacing that not all Fine Gael TDs and senators were canvassing for Mitchell. It has been claimed that a group of TDs, some of whom tried to oust Enda Kenny as leader, are refusing to back the nomination in an attempt to “embarrass” the Taoiseach. 

Mitchell was chosen as the party’s candidate ahead of Mairead McGuinness and Pat Cox, but many believe he is out of his depth.

It is accepted as inevitable that Kenny will be damaged politically if Mitchell finishes behind Martin McGuinness, David Norris and Dana Rosemary Scallon in the polls

McGuinness claimed yesterday that the poll showed that Mitchell’s attacks on his IRA past had backfired.

The Sinn Fein candidate retains his position in third place but his chances will be affected by poor transfer prospects from other candidates.

Mitchell rejected the idea that his negative campaign against McGuinness had backfired or that he didn’t have the support of the party.

 

 

 

Higgins Tops Latest Opinion Poll

Labour candidate Michael D Higgins has topped an Ipsos MRBI presidential opinion poll published in today’s Irish Times with 23% of the vote – an unsurprising result following Tuesday’s televised debate on TV3. Seán Gallagher’s support rating has increased to second overall (20%) while Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness is close behind on 19%.

Mary Davis’s popularity remains unchanged since July at 12% while David Norris (11%) and Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell (9%) both suffered major decreases in support, losing 14 and 12 points respectively. Dana Rosemary Scallon rounded out the poll on 6%.

A spokesperson for Michael D Higgins has said they are “very pleased” with the poll result. Meanwhile, Séan Gallagher feels his surge in support is reflective of the positive feedback he has been receiving from the public on the campaign trail.

When questioned, Mr McGuinness described the poll as “a snapshot rather than a reflection of the true figures” but admitted to being pleased with his high ranking. Ms Davis commented on the “huge volatility” highlighted by the poll while Ms Scallon insisted she paid little attention to such surveys.

Mr Mitchell admitted he was disappointed with the results but said he was confident his standing would improve “with the full support of the Fine Gael party and its 30,000 members”. However, such support may not be as forthcoming as he would have hoped as he is the number one preference for just 21% of the party’s members, with many favouring Labour’s Mr Higgins. As a result of this, Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny has urged the party to get behind their candidate.

Mr Mitchell added, “Even though we are trailing, nobody has yet won this election. It is all to play for and I am more determined than ever. Opinion polls are interesting, but the real poll will happen on 27 October.”

Mr Norris has so far not commented on the survey.

The poll was carried out earlier this week among 1,000 voters aged 18 and over in all 43 constituencies. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 per cent.

Taoiseach Backs Mitchell Bid

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said that Fine Gael councillors will be abstaining from any votes on nominating independent presidential candidates.

The decision represents a significant boost for the campaigns of Senator David Norris and Dana Rosemary Scallon – as the councillors will not be voting against them.

A number of local authorities are to meet in the coming days to decide if they will facilitate either of their entries into the Áras race.

Meanwhile David Norris is now just three names short of the 20 Oireachtas members needed to secure a formal nomination to contest for the presidency.

The Taoiseach – who was speaking at the National Ploughing Championships – said Fine Gael councillors will not be supporting any candidate other than Gay Mitchell.

“The Fine Gael party has made its selection,” he said.

“We are not supporting any other candidate. We support Gay Mitchell and all our efforts will go towards electing him.

“Fine Gael councillors from around the country will not receive any further instruction from me. They have abstained on all of these (votes) so far,” he added.

“We are not supporting any candidate other than our own.”