…but mostly circuses

by niamh on November 3, 2011

The Irish government must be disappointed that the Presidential election, held on 27 October, is now over, with the election of the Labour Party’s candidate Michael D Higgins as the country’s ninth President. We will now start to notice once again that unemployment is over 14%, we are still in the grip of austerity, and a new and even nastier budget is on the way. But for weeks on end, news coverage was dominated by the race for this almost entirely ceremonial office, while the government’s standing in the polls stayed quite high.

Long ago we could depend on having a pretty boring Presidential election contest involving a largely tribal, party-political choice between two elderly men. But the last two Presidents, both women, both lawyers, both academics from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and both strangely enough called Mary, transformed the office. Mary Robinson and Mary MacAleese adopted big, symbolic, non-party-political themes for their campaigns –women’s empowerment (‘Mná na hÉireann’), outreach to the diaspora, overcoming communal divisions, encouraging civil society organizations.

This year, the election attracted an unprecedented seven candidates. This colourful group included a prominent gay rights activist, a former Eurovision song contest winner, an ex-IRA leader, a poet-politician given to wearing floral ties, and a businessman best known for his role in the Irish version of the reality-TV programme Dragons’ Den (or Shark Tank in the USA).

What’s been especially striking is that several of the leading candidates embodied some issue that has been difficult or traumatic in recent Irish public life. And one after the other, what they had hoped to use as their main selling-point turned out to be their downfall. What follows is probably mostly for Irish political junkies, so I will put the rest below the fold…

One of the first declared candidates was David Norris, a Senator and former TCD academic, a Joyce scholar, equally at ease addressing the Institute of European Affairs and a gay pride rally. He helped speed up the liberalization of Irish society in the 1980s by securing a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights on decriminalizing homosexual activity (only finally enacted in 1993). His candidacy attracted a lot of goodwill at first, but his enduring taste for controversy came back to haunt him. Remarks he make ten years ago on the age of consent for sexual activity were revived. Merely provocative and hypothetical then, they were now heard in a very different context. An official report into the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic diocese of Cloyne, published this summer, was the latest in a series of horrifying disclosures. The Cloyne report prompted Taoiseach Enda Kenny to make an unprecedentedly strong and pointed speech criticizing Vatican foot-dragging and obfuscation. Norris’s past musings about under-age sexual activity now seemed downright disturbing to many. An attempted comeback foundered, this time over revelations that he had written letters asking for clemency on behalf of a former lover (an Israeli human rights activist) who had been jailed for the statutory rape of an adolescent youth (who was Palestinian). Humanitarian considerations were now beside the point. The issue was too raw, too sensitive – his campaign was over.

A surprising candidate for the Presidency was Martin McGuinness, who gave up a position of real political responsibility as Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive to stand as the Sinn Féin representative.  McGuinness didn’t necessarily think he could win, or not this time anyway: Sinn Féin hoped to capitalize on the electoral collapse of the historically dominant Fianna Fáil party. Sinn Féin had come a long way in accommodating to the democratic parliamentary process in Northern Ireland, and its candidates had won 14 of 166 seats in the February 2011 Dáil elections. But in the person of McGuinness, Irish voters were being asked to go one step further, and to bring Sinn Féin right into the heart of the political system. Was the electorate willing to set aside thirty years of the Troubles and to focus only on the thirteen years of the peace process? Was the past really another country? McGuiness asserted that this was indeed the case. He acknowledged that he had been an active member of the IRA in the early 1970s: this is a matter of public record. But he insisted that he had left the IRA in 1974 and that the years of bloody violence had nothing directly to do with him. The implication was that his recent role as peace-maker weighed more heavily than his past with the bomb-makers.

People simply didn’t believe his disavowals– but Irish politicians have had relatively little experience of arguing head-to-head with Sinn Féin about the Troubles. A wonderful TV moment (from 32:50) came when journalist Vincent Brown challenged McGuinness directly. Vincent dipped into a bag and pulled out book after book by reputable authors, all of whom asserted that McGuinness had been a leading member of the IRA Army Council until well into the 2000s. Ed Moloney, author and veteran reporter on Northern Ireland, reviewed more of the evidence. Others added further information about McGuinness’s known activities. One of the most moving and decisive moments of the campaign was when the son of army private Patrick Kelly, shot during the IRA kidnapping of businessman Don Tidey in 1983, confronted Martin MGuinness: ‘I want justice for my father. You know the name of his killer’.  ‘Should we appoint a head of State who could be liable to arrest for war crimes under international law?’ asked Fintan O’Toole. The answer was a decisive ‘no’.

Unusually, Fianna Fáil didn’t field a candidate for this election, but preferred to focus on rebuilding their shattered organization after its calamitous performance in the February general election. To Sinn Féin’s disappointment, disillusioned Fianna Fáil support did not flow directly toward McGuinness, but gathered instead around the burly figure of Seán Gallagher, whose shaven head and narrowed stare were a familiar sight on TV. Gallagher had been actively involved in Fianna Fáil, but he now stood as an Independent candidate. To many erstwhile Fianna Fáil voters, he seemed attractive precisely because he was like them, or an idealized image of themselves: a self-made man with interests in property, disillusioned with Fianna Fáil but still from the same gene-pool. The collapse of McGuinness’s support causes a surge in support for Gallagher, and for a time it seemed quite probable that he would be the clear winner.

What proved his undoing was that he turned out to be far more closely involved with Fianna Fáil than he had let on. Not only that, but in a dramatic challenge during the final TV debate, Martin McGuinness revealed that Gallagher had been complicit in many of the bad old discredited practices such as collecting envelopes full of money – and that he had been doing so very recently. Gallagher was caught flat-footed, and fell back upon the usual old tricks of evasion, denial, and faulty memory. This proved fatal.

Still, he nearly made it. In the end, it was Sinn Féin’s attack on Gallagher that proved decisive to the outcome – another indication that Sinn Féin is playing a long game, the main aim of which is to weaken Fianna Fáil. The anti-Gallagher vote solidified around Labour candidate Michael D Higgins. Michael D, the oldest candidate by some margin (he is 70), has a long and worthy career behind him. It looks like he has a long and wordy career in front of him, if his acceptance speech is anything to go by. But at last, the long media circus is over, and it’s back to business as usual.



Barry 11.03.11 at 1:21 pm

BTW, I skimmed the first link, but couldn’t figure out who won.

What are the implications? If this means that another group of neoliberal oligarchists have been rotated in, to continue the same policies, then to my mind this means that Irish Democracy remains as limited and managed as in most Western countries. And Ireland (from what I can gather), will continue to wither, while EU payments are immediately endorsed over to EU banks, while the debt remains far too high to pay.


Niall McAuley 11.03.11 at 1:46 pm

The election in one photo.

Gallagher on the left, McGuinness on the right, the winner Michael D. in the centre.


ajay 11.03.11 at 2:10 pm

What’s been especially striking is that several of the leading candidates embodied some issue that has been difficult or traumatic in recent Irish public life.

I was really expecting the next paragraph to be about the Eurovision Song Contest there.


niamh 11.03.11 at 2:35 pm

Ajay – ha ha!
Niall – great photo! Captions??
Barry – Michael D wants to promote the values of a ‘true republic’, but the role of President is mostly confined to promoting tea and buns in the Park.


Substance McGravitas 11.03.11 at 2:52 pm

What follows is probably mostly for Irish political junkies, so I will put the rest below the fold…

Half true. Thanks for the post.


nick s 11.03.11 at 4:42 pm

Speaking of Eurovision, what precisely is Dana’s constituency these days? I’m aware that she’s been an apologist for the old shadow theocracy for a very long time, but a lot has changed in Ireland since she pulled in 14% in 1997.

(The polling suggests that her support halved after the news broke about her becoming a US citizen in the late 90s — and her risible attempt to say she wasn’t aware of what the oath of citizenship says.)


Bryan O'Sullivan 11.03.11 at 4:48 pm

Niamh, thanks for an excellent summary. Watching the whole thing unfold from California (mainly via Twitter) was astonishing. I hope a few expats who weren’t paying attention at the time get to read your brief and marvel at the tumult.


rf 11.03.11 at 8:53 pm

@ Niamh

Id be interested to know your opinion on the failed referendum? Having read a few of your recent articles on political reform it seems it might have been right up your alley? Although you had me largely convinced and I didnt want to encourage Peter Sutherland I have to say I voted no, out of ignorance largley and the whole situation not feling right.


BrendanH 11.03.11 at 10:02 pm

OT, but perhaps apropos of Dana and the theocracy: I heard on the radio earlier that they’re closing the Irish Embassy to the Vatican.

I’m beginning to feel this country changing under me. Disconcerting, but not in a bad way.


niamh 11.04.11 at 8:29 am

Thank you for your thoughts, people. I didn’t discuss the two constitutional referendums partly because in a single blog, this gets quite convoluted, and partly because I was in fact quite bemused that the presidential election, which really changes nothing of importance, got so much coverage, while two referendum items, which really would, got hardly any air-time at all. I wanted to probe the dramaturgy a bit.

A referendum is required to change the Irish constitution, or to enter into an international treaty that changes the sovereign powers of the state. Since 1995, as a result of a case taken by ex-MEP Patricia McKenna to the Supreme Court, it has been impossible for governments to use public money to campaign for an issue they wish to put to referendum. Since parties tend to hang onto party funds to contest national elections, the main means of disseminating information is through the Referendum Commission, which is required to clarify issues of fact but which cannot take a position. As you can imagine, this is a situation that is not likely to set the world on fire with excitement. Many people clearly feel under-informed, since the whole onus is on them to find out what the issues are.

The proposal to make it possible for the government to vary judges’ pay was carried. Clearly most people believed that the powers would not be used for political or partisan purposes, but would simply regularize the situation in which all others paid for from the public purse took a pay hit in the context of fiscal crisis.

The proposal to make it possible for parliamentary committees to undertake inquiries to make determinations of fact was intended to reverse the ‘Abbeylara’ judgment of 2000, which stated that parliamentary committees could not undertake inquiries that risked jeopardizing the reputations of individuals. In Ireland, the ‘right to one’s good name’ has tended to be the refuge of precisely those people who attract public interest-related inquiries, and it is the principal reason why the cost of Tribunals went stratospheric in recent years. This amendment was also meant to redress the ongoing imbalance in Irish politics that tilts heavily in favour of the executive and leaves the legislature pretty powerless… eg http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2011/1101/1224306842630.html

This amendment result was 53:47 against. Those who opposed did so for various reasons: some felt the government had made a poor job of explaining it, and ‘if in doubt, leave it out’:
Others apparently took the view that it was a power-grab on the part of politicians, and don’t distinguish between government and parliament. Others again may have been in favour of the principle, but thought the balance of individuals’ rights to appeal to the courts was wrong.

The government has an ambitious programme of constitutional reform in mind. It’s got to rethink how it handles referendums if it’s to make any headway with this.


niamh 11.04.11 at 8:35 am

BTW I don’t think Dana said the words ‘Catholic’ once in any of the debates, though her campaign website is unequivocal about her views – the voter base to whom these would be an asset is very small. Her anti-EU position was clear enough. But she only got about 3% of the first preference votes.


niamh 11.04.11 at 8:53 am

On closing the embassy to the Vatican – in my view, having two representations, one to Italy in Rome and a separate one to the Vatican down the road, was always a bit questionable anyway. But previous Irish governments probably wouldn’t have taken this step, and it’s certainly easier for Labour’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore. It seems the ambassador to Italy will now take over the nicer residence the Vatican ambassador had occupied, and the Secretary General of the Dept of Foreign Affairs will cover the representation to the Vatican, from Dublin. It isn’t a case of withdrawing representation or diplomatic recognition, nor of an ‘attack on Catholic culture’ as a man from the Irish Catholic newspaper has said.
There are also plans to shut down the embassies in Iran and in East Timor, also grounds of cost and ‘economic returns’. These duties are to be reallocated to other embassies nearby.


BrendanH 11.04.11 at 9:52 am

It might not be an attack on Catholic culture in Ireland, but it is clearly an attack on the Vatican’s amour propre. The idea that the symbolic, spiritual, rubbing-shoulders-with-the-pope value of the embassy counts for nothing against the paucity of economic returns, is a real, well-deserved but entirely unexpected slap in the face.

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