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.

Bookie can`t see past Michael D

With less than a week to go before the general election one bookie has opted to pay punters who backed Michael D Higgins for the Aras.

Boyle Sports bookmakers have decided the Labour Party candidate is certain to become the ninth President of Ireland and paid out to the tune of €125,000, with a further €100,000 to come if they have misjudged the electorate.

A statement from the firm read:

“This is possibly the most volatile market we’ve seen in years with so many twists and turns. The majority of punters have stuck to their guns and backed Michael D. Higgins. We’ve paid out early before and are yet to get it wrong so let’s hope this prediction works in our favour once more!”

Mr Higgins has been backed heavily in recent days and his price has shortened to 2/7, meaning punters would have to bet seven euro to win two.

Sean Gallagher has drifted to 9/4 with Martin McGuinness next best at 25/1. The rest of the candidates fall firmly into the “also-rans” category with Gay Mitchell at 40/1, David Norris at 50/1, Mary Davis at 100/1 and Dana brings up the rear on with a whopping price of 300/1.

The former Eurovision winner is also overwhelming favourite to be eliminated after the first count with Paddy Power offering the almost unbackable odds of 1/8.

Michael D Higgins is favourite to win most first preference votes at 4/11 with election turn-out of 50% to 55% being favoured by the betting community as the most likely outcome.

Paddy Power is also offering odds of 200/1 on Vincent Browne becoming President in his life time.

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.

Higgins Will Only Serve One Term If Elected

Labour Presidential candidate Michael D Higgins has stated that he will only serve one term in office if he is elected.

He has said he has always operated with what he called ‘extraordinary energy’ particularly in his human rights missions abroad and that he would continue to do so .

He said he had always been on the cusp of change and was opposed to conservatism where it has stopped people acting in their best interests.

Mr Higgins said he was against a return to the values of the Celtic Tiger and the country needed to be inclusive at home and to restore the reputation of Ireland abroad.

Asked who would be his first guests at the Áras, Mr Higgins said that if elected, he would invite the other six candidates and ask them to talk about the best moments of the campaign.

Gardaì Investigate Possible Tampering With Dana`s Car

Gardaì have been notified about possible tampering of independent candidate Dana Rosemary Scallon`s campaign car, after the vehicle narrowly avoided a crash in Co.Kildare. 

The tyre on the rear wheel blew last night as she and three others were returning to Dublin from Co Leitrim. Gardaì in Carrick On Shannon are currently investigating the alleged tampering.

The tyre blew out near Kilcock, causing the car to swerve from the outside lane to the hard shoulder, narrowly missing a truck.

On examination the tyre had more than 12 abrasions and holes in the tyre wall.

Dana said they had the tyre examined in Dublin this morning. They were told that it could have been deliberately cut, but it is not possible to say as the damage is so bad.

Gardaí confirmed they received a report of alleged criminal damage that is now under investigation.

Dana cancelled her engagements in counties Wicklow and Wexford for today as a result of the incident but will resume on the campaign trail tomorrow.

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.

Davis’ previous board association may cost her more votes

Over one thousand former Dublin airport workers have announced that they will not be giving their vote to Mary Davis on October 27th. This statement came after Davis allegedly failed to adequately answer questions relating to the closure of SR Technics in 2009 while she was serving on the board of the Dublin Airport Authority.

This particularly contentious industry closing is still sparking debate and many workers feel that the company’s closing was partially enabled by the actions of the DAA. Former employees believe that the DAA’s decision to buy out the leases on the SRT hangars at Dublin airport, for an alleged €20m, helped clear the way for the company to pull out. SR Technics’s sudden exit caused outrage among workers who believe they were unfairly denied the chance to negotiate pay cuts, or to examine other cost cutting measures with the company. Furthermore, the aviation maintenance firm departed without addressing the €26m pension deficit which caused workers strikes in mid-2009. The company also caused offence by offering their former employees redundancy terms barely above the minimum legal limit.

With increasing scrutiny being placed on all the presidential candidates it is not surprising that Davis’s past involvement with several state boards is coming into question. Representatives of former STR employees lodged several questions with her office last week asking Ms Davis to confirm when she first heard that the faltering firm was pulling out, and how much the DAA paid to buy back the hangars. They have also asked her to explain her position towards the closure at the time, and how she voted on the hangar issue. Responding in a recent statement to the press, Ms Davis said during her time on the board of the DAA she acted with diligence and integrity. However many workers are not satisfied with her answers.

During a week which has seen Mary Davis call for greater personal and professional scrutiny of all presidential candidates, some feel she is not acting with the fairness and transparency that she is advocating. In a recent press release Davis called for the examination of candidates previous work and professional associations. She also states that, ‘transparency is important and in my own case I have dealt with each and every question put to me, and have asked other candidates to provide a similar degree of transparency’. However, with Ms Davis currently sitting second to last in the latest election poll it is unclear weather her new strategy will boost her standings or if she can weather the storm of her quango controversy.