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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Michael D. Higgins sets out to rally female vote

Labour  candidate Higgins called for the current legislation of human trafficking to be rigerously monitored .

He marked the European Union’s Anti-Trafficking Day this Tuesday by thanking the people who campaigned and fought for the Act on Human Trafficking to be passed into law in 2008.

Higgins further added that women are lurred into Ireland with the promise of a better life and that the new legislation was a big step in the fight against human trafficking. He said that trafficked women had previously been unable to approach the authorities.

He nevertheless described the options trafficked women now have as a “Catch 22” situation beacuse a women who comes forward to the Gardai, is allowed a certain period of time to apply for asylum.

Mr Higgins said that, there is however no guarantee of a successful outcome to a person’s application and few women are coming forward. He added that, to date, no convictions have been secured under the legislation and it therefore needs to be rigorously monitored as to its effectiveness.

Yesterday Higgins continued his presidential campaign by addressing a Safe Ireland event hosted by RTE presenter Miriam O’Callaghan.

He highlighted that necesarry financial cutbacks should not affect  women’s and children’s safety and highlighted that if elected president he would review progress on the elimination of violenece against women annually.

Higgins strongly expressed his opinion on the issue and said that violence simply needs to be eliminated and highlighted that against common belief violence against women does not only effect people of lower social classes.

Continuing his rally for female votes, the president hopeful Higgins  attended this morning’s Women’s Conference at Merrion Square in Dublin.

McGuinness and O’Callaghan make peace

Its been almost a week since their icy exchange on RTE’s Primetime television program, but today it seemed tensions had thawed between the Sinn Fein presidential candidate Martin McGuinness and Primetime host Miriam O’Callaghan as they shook hands outside the mansion house. The meeting between the pair came as they prepared to attend a presidential forum on disability organised by inclusion Ireland.

According to O’Callaghan they had a friendly conversation and she went on to say that she continued to ‘ like and respect all the seven candidates’ . However, she refused to be drawn on what was said during their one to one meeting following McGuinness’ objection to her line of questioning, explaining that it ‘was a private meeting between two people so my lips are sealed’.

McGuinness will hope his display of no ill feelings towards the RTE presenter will draw a line under the matter. The incident had somewhat undermined his campaign with many suggesting his reaction and subsequent demand for a one to one meeting following the show were ‘bully’ boy tactics and conveyed a man full of anger . With his campaign centered around his peace making skills it seems that this meeting with the popular presenter will have done him no harm, as he looks to distance himself from his IRA past.

The Sinn Fein candidate had taken offence to what he believed was unfair treatment on the RTE show and later had a private meeting with Miriam O’Callaghan, to which sources said left O’Callaghan visibly ‘shaken’. The host had earlier inquired about McGuinness’ IRA past and asked ‘how do you square, Martin McGuinness, with your God, the fact that you were involved in the murder of so many people?’

The latest poll conducted by the Sunday Business Post had Martin McGuinness third favorite to win the race for the Aras, behind Sean Gallagher and Michael D. Higgins.

Martin McGuinness disappointed with Prime Time presenter

Last night all seven candidates for the Aras election 2011 joined Miriam O’Callaghan for RTE’s Prime Time debate but one candidate felt the proceedings were unfair.

Martin McGuiness, Sinn Fein’s hopeful in the presidential election, described the way he was treated as a “trial by television”.

Derry-born McGuinness, a former senior figure in the Provisional IRA, was questioned on his past by the TV presenter.

O’Callaghan asked McGuinness how he felt about being involved in the murder of so many people during the Northern Ireland troubles. McGuinness said that this was a disgraceful comment to make and tried to justify his past.

At one point the presenter argued that it would be humiliating for the Irish people to have a leader who had been involved in IRA killings.

O’Callaghan continued to challenge McGuinness by going round all the other candidates asking if they “had a problem” with Martin McGuinness being the head of State. She however neglected to ask McGuinness if he felt if the other candidates were suitable for president.

During this afternoon’s visit to the Cavan Institute, McGuinness confirmed that he had requested a one-to-one meeting with O’Callaghan after the show, where he expressed his disappointment in the way the debate was handled.

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.