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.

Higgins Tops Frontline Debate Poll

According to a poll on The Journal.ie, Michael D Higgins fared best in last night’s pivotal Frontline debate on RTÉ, receiving 38% of the vote.

Results:
Michael D Higgins: 38%
David Norris: 21%
Martin McGuinness: 19%
Don’t Know: 8%
Seán Gallagher: 6%
Gay Mitchell: 2%
Mary Davis: 2%
Dana Rosemary Scallon: 1%

Do you agree with these findings?

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.

Islanders Prepare To Vote As Final Debate Looms

Voters on the islands off the coast of Donegal will vote today in the Presidential election and the two referendums on Oireachtas inquiries and judges’ pay.

Traditionally the islanders vote ahead of the rest of the electorate to ensure that bad weather does not hinder the return of ballot boxes on time to be counted with the rest of the votes cast in the Donegal South West constituency.

Islanders on five Donegal islands will go to the polls – Arranmore, Tory, Gola, Inisfree and Inisboffin as the Presidential candidates prepare for the final debate to be staged this evening on The Frontline on RTE. It will be a last chance saloon for some of the candidates who have slumped in the polls recently to restore some credibility.

A total of 937 people are entitled to vote and the largest electorate of almost 700 are registered on the biggest island, Arranmore. The smallest electorate is on Inishfree where there are just eight voters registered.

Polling stations will be open from 11am to 3pm on each of the islands except Arranmore, where two polling stations will be open from 10.30am until 7.30pm, to accommodate people who work on the mainland.

Frontline airs this evening at 9.40 on RTE 1.

‘Liveline’ Broadcasts Controversial Norris-Burke Interview

RTÉ Radio’s ‘Liveline’ programme has today broadcast a recording of the controversial 2002 interview between Independent presidential candidate David Norris and journalist Helen Lucy Burke.

Excerpts from the interview later appeared in an article in Magill magazine where Norris was quoted as saying there was “something to be said” for “classic paedophilia”. He also spoke of the confusion many people hold regarding the distinction between paedophilia and pederasty.

Senator Norris maintains the comments were taken out of context.

A spokesperson for Norris’s presidential campaign believes the tape is part of a “concerted effort by certain people” to damage his bid for the presidency. They stated that Norris was “not worried” about the broadcast, adding that “his track record speaks for itself”.

The programme can be listened to here.

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.

Dana`s Statement In Full

Dana Rosemary Scallon shocked candidates on Wednesday`s Prime Time debate when she revealed a statement condemning recent slurs against her family.

Here is the video in full courtesy of RTE.