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.


McGuinness Criticised By Families of IRA Victims

A daughter of murdered Jean McConville has criticised the participation of Sinn Fèin’s Martin McGuinness in the Presidential election.

McConville was the mother of ten who was abducted by the IRA in Belfast in 1972 and shot dead. Her body was found 31 years later in 2003 by a passer-by on a Co Louth beach.

Speaking at her home in Co Down, Helen McKendry said: “I don’t think Martin McGuinness should be standing. He should be telling the truth to victims’ families, the whole truth.”

Her husband, Seamus McKendry, also criticised the Derry native: “I think the office of President has too much prestige for any Sinn Féiner to be contesting it.”

The McKendrys demonstrated against Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams when he ran as a Dáil candidate in Co Louth during the last general election.

Elsewhere, the family of Tom Oliver who was kidnapped and killed by the IRA in July 1991 has attacked McGuinness over his failure to say that Mr Oliver was murdered.

 McGuinness said he would not disagree with the families of Oliver or McConville when they described the deaths as murder, despite failing to admit that were actually murdered.

Oliver was a farmer who was kidnapped and killed by the IRA, who believed he was a Garda informer, a claim staunchly denied by his family.

Yesterday evening the son of Mr Oliver, Eugene Oliver, issued a statement via Independent candidate Sean Gallagher`s campaign team on behalf of the family.

In it Eugene Oliver said he was really upset when he heard Mr McGuinness warn another candidate (Gallagher) on The Frontline to tell the truth.

“What shallow hypocrisy from a man who has dined out on weasel words for most of his career,” the statement said.

Mr Oliver said he wanted Mr McGuinness to “stop hiding behind weasel words” and admit that his father and Mrs McConville were murdered by the IRA, which McGuinness was a leading member of.

The statement went on to say that everyone saw the “empty words” of Mr McGuinness on The Frontline programme when he refused to describe their deaths as murder.

“Even at this late stage, with just days to go to polling, he could not find it in his heart to admit my father, along with other innocent people, were murdered,” Mr Oliver said.

“He was gunned down in cold blood and even twenty years after, at this remove my family are entitled to finally and unequivocally hear the words ‘murder’ uttered from his lips,” the statement adds.


McGuinness Responds To Family of Murdered Detective

Sinn Féin Presidential candidate Martin McGuinness has responded to a statement by the widow and family of Detective Jerry McCabe questioning his suitability for the office of President.

The family issued a statement to the Limerick Leader newspaper in which they posed a number of questions to  McGuinness about his relationship with Kevin Walsh, who was convicted of the manslaughter of Detective McCabe.

The Derry native rejected the claim by the deceased`s family that he met one of the suspects for Detective McCabe’s killing while that person was wanted by Gardaí.

He said: “I did not meet with Kevin Walsh in the aftermath of the killing of Garda McCabe and I have no information about the whereabouts of any other suspects or if indeed there are any other suspects.

“The killing of Garda McCabe was unjustifiable. I have condemned it unreservedly.

“A grave wrong was done to the McCabe family and the IRA have acknowledged that and apologised for it.

“I have never and would never stand over attacks on members of the defence forces or the Gardaí.”

Detective McCabe was shot dead after a bank robbery in Adare, Co Limerick in June 1996.

The McCabe family called on the other six presidential candidates to demand that Mr McGuinness co-operate with Gardaí in its ongoing inquiries as they feel justice for their loss has never fully been served.


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:

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.

McGuinness Confronted By Dead Soldier`s Son

Presidential candidate Martin McGuinness was confronted during canvassing in Westmeath yesterday by the son of a member of the Irish Army who was killed in an incident after the kidnap of Don Tidey in Leitrim in 1983.

David Kelly, whose 35-year-old father Paddy was shot dead, approached  McGuinness in Athlone and urged him to name those responsible for the death of his father.

Sinn Fèin candidate McGuinness denied he knew the names of the IRA members involved in the kidnapping of Mr Tidey from Ballinamore.

He told Mr Kelly that while he sympathised with him, he was not a member of the IRA army council when it happened and repeatedly denied suggestions by Mr Kelly that he was a liar.

Mr Kelly said the Presidential election should be about truth and that was what he was looking for having never received any form of justice in relation to the death of his father.

He also said that he and his family had considered the coroner’s report on his father’s shooting and were now 100% certain that the bullet that hit their father came from the gun of an IRA man involved in the incident.

He rejected suggestions that there was any doubt about this and that his father had been hit in crossfire after gardaí and the army confronted the gang who were holding Mr Tidey.

McGuinness said the economy is central issue in the campaign and he would be discussing ways in which the President could make a difference throughout the campaign instead of focusing on negative issues.


McGuinness:Progress or Controversy?


As has been expected the decision by Sinn Fein deputy leader and North’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness to run for election as President of Ireland has proved to be quite controversial.

Last Saturday Mr. McGuinness was officially unveiled by Sinn Fein as their candidate for the Presidential election and swiftly received the support of 3 additional Oireachtas members to add to their 17 to give Mr. McGuinness the 20 votes required to enter the race. The additional support came from Kerry Independent TD Michael Healy Rae, Luke Ming Flanagan with Finian McGrath and Tom Flemming also believed to have provided their support.

Mr. McGuinness is well known to have been a leading member of the provisional IRA in the past and has gone to prison on two occasions as a result of this membership. Unsurprisingly it is this period of his past and the many heinous events executed by the IRA during this time of his membership that sits uneasily with many people. Within the past week we have seen much public disapproval of Mr. McGuinness’ decision to enter the race, with former TV presenter Gay Byrne brandishing both McGuinness and Sinn Fein as “liars”, saying: “they don’t mind lying and they’ve rehearsed their lies and they’ve been trained to lie.”

Should Mr. McGuinness win the race for President then he would assume the titular position of Head of the country’s Defence Forces, an issue which has irked many including Justice Minister Alan Shatter who believes that somebody with Mr. McGuinness’ “exotic background” would be “somewhat inappropriate” for this position.

Another aspect which appears to be overlooked but should be considered if Mr. McGuinness becomes President is his relationship with an Garda Síochana. Na Gardaí are the security providers to the President of Ireland yet one would imagine there must surely be an element of the Gardaí with some negative feeling towards Sinn Fein and Mr.McGuinness. There have been many events which could cause tension between the two but an act which lead to much disdain toward Sinn Fein was the 1996 killing of Det. Garda Jerry McCabe by the IRA. One would not be surprised if some members of an Garda Síochana were unhappy at having to protect a man of his alleged background and standing within an organisation that caused so much distress, in the South aswell as the North.

Sinn Féin have come under further criticism in this country for their boycott of the State dinner President McAleese hosted in Dublin Castle for Queen Elizabeth II earlier this year. This was seen by many as an ideal opportunity to make further strides in the reconciliation of the two countries and acknowledge the progress that has been made for peace, yet Sinn Féin as a party were very public at the time in their refusal to attend. This has raised questions as to how Mr. McGuinness would act, as head of this State, should he be required to meet the Queen or any other members of the Royal Family.

Mr. McGuinness himself has stated that he would be willing to meet Queen Elizabeth should he become president. He has also acknowledged being a member of the Provisional IRA and has condemned the killing of Det. Garda Jerry McCabe.

McGuinness has said on his time in the IRA: “ I don’t divest myself of my responsibility during the time I was in the IRA, I have plenty of regrets”. Yet his account of his time in the IRA is in stark contrast to that which has been reported. Former head of the RUC Special Branch Chief Superintendent Brian Fitzsimons and former RUC Chief Constable Hugh Annesley have both stated that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were key figures in the provisional IRA and that Sinn Féin and the provisional IRA were inextricably linked.

McGuinness has employed various tactics in response to questioning on this issue. To his credit he has always acknowledged he was a member of the IRA, however on certain occasions he has refused to answer the extent of his involvement. More recently as the Presidential race has progressed he has adopted a more open stance, stating that he had fought and fired a gun but that he had never killed anybody, either directly or indirectly.

However it is Mr. McGuinness’s record as a peacemaker that his campaign is based on. Martin McGuinness has been a key figure in establishing peace in the North. One of the most powerful images of the newly established peaceful North was of Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley side by side laughing and joking like old friends. Remember these were men considered to be sworn enemies. Men so opposed and divided in their beliefs that the thoughts of them being in each others company for long enough to work together seemed far-fetched. Yet there they were. Huge credit must go to McGuinness for his part in working so successfully with those from all sides.

Yes, his past is one of alleged violence, yet his present seems firmly one of peace. Mr. McGuinness has also highlighted his credentials for the ambassadorial role that comes with being President, on last Sunday’s “This Week” on RTE Radio 1, he said :

“ I’ve been in the Oval Office with three Presidents, I’ve been at the invitation of Nelson Mandela to South Africa”.

Let’s not forget either that Nelson Mandela was also considered a terrorist. Which brings us to the other argument in favour of Martin McGuinness as President. Wasn’t one of Ireland’s best loved political figures, former Taoiseach and President, Eamon DeValera a terrorist? He was of course a member of the original Irish Republican Army and fought in the 1916 rising. Is there such a huge distinction between the bloody wars fought by the IRA of then and now?

For those who believe Senator Norris as President would give the image of a progressive Ireland, could it be argued that Martin McGuinness as President would give an even stronger image of progression? Could it provide an even more powerful symbol of how far this country has come from its troubled past? Or would it give the wrong image, the President of this country with such a controversial past – some acknowledged but even more alleged?


McGuinness Refuses To Give Insight Into IRA Past

Sinn Féin Presidential candidate Martin McGuinness has said he did not kill or shoot anybody while he was a member of the IRA between 1970 and 1974 – but he would not say if he had shot at anybody during that time.

Speaking on local radio in Cork, Mr McGuinness said he would not say what role he played in the IRA in Derry in the early 1970s because it would leave him open to charges that he was being boastful.

He said he was not prepared to get into what he had done in the IRA on a daily basis and was asking people to judge him “in the round”.

When it was put to him that he was saying he did not use guns during his time in the IRA, Mr McGuinness said he was not saying that and he would not divest himself of his responsibility while he was in the IRA.

He repeated his charge that there were people who were totally hostile to what he represented, and this included “a small minority” of journalists north and south of the border.

Mr McGuinness said he was very satisfied that the foundation stones he had laid in Northern Ireland over the past five years with Peter Robinson and Ian Paisley would go from strength to strength, and he said he believed the IRA Army Council no longer existed.