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.

Norris in Financial Trouble Following Contentious Campaign

Independent presidential candidate David Norris has admitted to being “in the red” as a result of his campaign.

The Seanad Éireann member said, “I’m out of money and I’m in the red but I’ve always been putting my money where my mouth is, I’ve consistently done this. If I think something needs to be done I will back it up with what ever meagre resources I have.”

However, he added that he did not wish to complain about his circumstances. He stated, “If I lose all my savings, I’ll be in exactly in same position as more than half country. I’m not gong to bellyache about it. People are losing their houses. I’m not going to lose my house. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve found myself in a prudent position.”

Despite the costly financial impact the campaign has left, Senator Norris insists he doesn’t regret re-entering the race for the Áras in September.

Norris pulled out of the campaign the previous month as a result of controversy surrounding clemency letters he wrote for his former partner Ezra Nawi in 1997.

Once the frontrunner, the latest Ipsos MRBI opinion poll indicated the Senator currently holds a support rating of just 8%. However, in tonight’s Frontline debate he noted that polls don’t always get it right. He also claimed that bookmakers once offered 10,000/1 on him getting a nomination in the first place.

Evening Herald Apologises to Norris for Misleading Article

The Evening Herald newspaper has printed a retraction of an article they published on 5 October – ‘With Norris on the ropes can anyone stop Higgins now?’.

In the article, the paper erroneously suggested that Independent presidential candidate David Norris claimed disability benefit from the social welfare system for 16 years after he stepped down as a lecturer in Trinity College Dublin.

The retraction notes how Senator Norris actually drew a disability benefit through a private contractual arrangement with the university and their insurers.

The newspaper apologised to Senator Norris for the mistake.

‘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.

Norris Sees Secularisation as a Way of Ensuring Equal Respect

Independent presidential candidate David Norris has reiterated his belief that the church and state should be two completely separate bodies. Senator Norris, a long-time member of the Church of Ireland, feels secularisation is the best way forward in order to ensure the rights of both non-believers and believers are respected equally.

He admitted that secularisation is now used as a somewhat divisive term but insisted that he wished to be a bastion for the rights of all people “regardless of race, religion, education, social background or orientation”.

He said, “I am religious but I don’t wear it on my sleeve. It gives me great comfort but I also understand religion has a place in society. Problems only arise when a religious pressure group claims to be more important than anyone else. The meek shall inherit the earth, not the people who decide they are better than everyone else.”

Senator Norris elucidated his views when speaking to TellUsWhy.ie. During the interview, he also claimed to be the only individual in the race for the Áras who has “used the Constitution to help protect a marginalised minority”.  He listed his involvement in the establishment of counselling services to help those in need and in setting up businesses to create employment as proof of this.

If elected, Mr Norris insisted he would “put the welfare of the people at the heart of the Presidency” – something he claimed those connected to established political parties simply could not achieve.

In a separate interview with The Irish Times, Mr Norris said he believed it would be a mistake if the Coalition took possession of the presidency as it would lead to an unhealthy “all-encompassing control of the seats of power in Ireland”.

Mr Norris praised how our previous two presidents “reinvented the role” while in office. He said changing circumstances may mean the role needs to be reinvented once more in order “to make sure that Ireland can hold its collective head high and that in our representation of the island around the world, people will continue to smile when they think of Ireland”.

Earlier today, Mr Norris dismissed the possibility of a transfer vote pact between himself and Labour’s presidential nominee Michael D Higgins, saying that it was up to the Irish people to vote in any manner they saw fit.

‘Don’t pigeon-hole me’ – Norris

Echoing comments he made on last night’s ‘Prime Time’ debate, Senator David Norris urged the public not to “pigeon-hole” him as he is much more than a one dimensional candidate.

While being interviewed on this morning’s Ray D’Arcy show on Today FM Mr Norris conceded that many people view him as nothing more than a tripartite character – gay rights activist, Georgian architecture enthusiast and Joycean literature scholar. Valid aspects of his personality though they may be, he reminded listeners of his human rights advocacy and senatorial track record.

During the interview, he vehemently denied being “soft” regarding the age of consent and insisted that the safeguarding of children was of the utmost importance to him.

Despite the many setbacks encountered during his campaign, Senator Norris is adamant that he can once again turn the tide and regain lost ground. He was positive when Mr D’Arcy asked if he could bounce back from his recent dip in the polls – many of which now rate him as the fourth most popular candidate. He mentioned the fact he topped a recent Metro poll with 39% of the vote but admitted that such a high showing was aided by his popularity in urban areas.

If elected, Norris pledged to dedicate the first 26 months of his Presidency to individual counties in order to highlight and celebrate their various achievements.