Ireland will elect its ninth president on October 28. This election is, however, fundamentally different to any previous campaign simply because the rather predictable voting patterns of previous general and presidential elections have been shattered with the collapse of the Fianna Fáil vote. Fianna Fáil, which constantly garnered 40 per cent of the vote at general elections and a similar figure in presidential elections, was decimated in the February 2011 general election and has taken the dramatic step not to enter a candidate at all in this presidential contest. Thus the party that has dominated Irish politics since it first took office in 1932 and won all but one of the presidential elections since the office was created in the 1937 constitution has left the field fearing an even worse result than in the general election where they were reduced to just 20 seats out of 166.
Seven candidates have put themselves forward for the office. Three are expressly party political. Gay Mitchell from Fine Gael and Michael D. Higgins from Labour are the standard bearers for the two government parties which holds a massive majority in the Irish parliament (Dáil Eireann). Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland executive – a position he has temporarily stepped down from to run in the presidential election – has been nominated by his party Sinn Féin and a number of independent members of the Dáil, but rather curiously McGuinness is declaring that he is not the Sinn Féin candidate. In any event his candidacy has caused something of a stir given his former IRA past and despite his late arrival to the campaign he has surged to 19 per cent in the opinion polls.
While Fine Gael are Ireland’s largest party, Mitchell’s campaign has been dogged by a widely-held view that the party’s leadership wanted a ‘difference’ candidate. Mitchell has failed to connect with the people in any meaningful way and stands at a shockingly low 9 per cent in the polls. Fine Gael in comparison stands in the mid-30s and received 36 per cent of the first preference vote in the general election.
With two weeks to go Higgins is the favourite having topped a number of opinion polls. He was a former Minister for Arts and Culture in the mid-1990s and is seen as something of the elder statesman of Irish politics.
There are four independent candidates who have all managed to get on the ballot paper despite the rather archaic nomination procedure, which involves being supported by either 20 members of the Oireachtas or four county councils. The four, Mary Davis, Sean Gallagher, David Norris and Dana Rosemary Scallon, span the political spectrum.
Scallon is a former MEP, who also ran or president in 1997, and is widely viewed as a right-wing conservative and her main campaign theme is to defend the constitution against Europe particularly. So far she has had made little impact on the electorate. Norris has long been associated with the so-called liberal agenda and has been a Senator since 1987. He has led a life-long crusade for gay rights in Ireland and was the early favourite, but his campaign has floundered and he has become embroiled in a number of controversies particularly over letters he wrote in support of his former partner who had been convicted of statutory rape in Israel, his views on pederasty in Ancient Greece, and the age of consent for sexual activity in Ireland. Mary Davis is the former chief executive of the 2003 Special Olympics, which were held in Ireland. She has served on a number of state and private boards and has been campaigning since long before the election was called. She has stressed the idea of the presidency being a vehicle for volunteerism, and promoting community development but has not made the impact that many pundits thought she would. Finally Sean Gallagher, a former Fianna Fáil member and ministerial special adviser, but more well know to the public as a judge on the popular TV show Dragon’s Den, has posited the view that the presidency can be used to promote entrepreneurial activity. Despite his Fianna Fáil, past Gallagher has made a serious impact on the campaign and is currently standing in second place in the polls and seems to have considerable momentum behind him.
Much of the public debate in the Irish presidential campaign has focused on the limitations of the office and to how the president is, to all intents and purposes, a political slave of the government. This has led to a rather stultifying political situation where the candidates, desperate to distinguish themselves from each other, search for any slight edge to gain public approval. Given the constraints of the office it would appear that no matter the result it is unlikely that Ireland’s ninth president will be able to chart new waters due to a constitution that allows the presidency little but a ceremonial role.
Dublin City University