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The Irish Presidential Election

The Irish presidency is a peculiar thing.  For an almost powerless political position, the presidential election is usually quite a hard fought one.  The presidency is nothing more than a ceremonial office for whoever gets it, but the upside to it is that they get to live rent-free for seven years in a big house in a park!  So who wouldn’t want it?  Well, in the 2011 presidential election, seven candidates fought tooth and nail for the annual 295,670 euro salary with an allowance of 317,434 euro on top of that.

Ireland is currently in an economic mess, and many, including the mainstream media, have voiced their concerns about keeping such a useless expensive political office.  The reality is that the people of Ireland secretly do want a president, or so it’s said.  They want to have a nice lady or gentleman to represent us overseas and host dignitaries at the presidential residence in Phoenix Park.  It makes us feel safe and comfortable as a nation to have a president and even more so these days as our economic sovereignty is in the hands of the IMF.

This was the largest field of candidates in the history of Irish presidential elections and without doubt the most colourful.  The Labour candidate, Michael D Higgins, was the oldest at 70 years of age, and the aura of an elder statesman tended to hang around him even though, given the youngest population in Europe, some people dismissed the notion of electing a pensioner to the highest office in the land.  Dana, Ireland’s first ever Eurovision winner, stood as an independent as did David Norris, a senator in the Irish senate, a noted Joycean scholar and a radical gay rights campaigner.  Sinn Fein entered the race for the first time ever with Martin McGuinness as their candidate.  The former IRA leader declared he would take only the average industrial wage if elected.  The government party, Fine Gael, chose a thoroughly dull candidate in the form of Gay Mitchell, a member of the European parliament from inner city Dublin.  Two other independents were Mary Davis, head of Special Olympics Ireland, and Sean Gallagher, a businessman with strong Fianna Fail links, who had gained a type of celebrity status for his stint as a judge on Ireland’s version of Dragons’ Den.

The campaign itself was full of debates and mud slinging, the most notable of which came from Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell.  When Martin McGuinness entered the race it rocked the mainstream media and the Fine Gael political machine, both of which turned viscously on the Sinn Fein peace negotiator.  Mitchell declared McGuinness unsuitable for the presidency due to his IRA past but Ireland already had two presidents who were past members of the IRA: Sean T. O’Kelly was president during the 1950s while most notably Eamon De Valera was president during the 60s.  While the mainstream media and Gay Mitchell considered McGuinness unfit to be president of Ireland, the fact of the matter is that the 61 year old has been for the last thirty years democratically elected in the north of Ireland to sit in the northern parliament at Stormont.  Still, Mitchell’s camp called McGuiness a terrorist, and that sort of paranoia turned the Mitchell campaign into an obsession of preventing a Sinn Fein president rather than gaining the top prize for themselves.  Mitchell’s own persona didn’t help him gain any popularity.  Names stuck to him such as ‘Grim’ Mitchell and ‘the hollow man’, names describing his less than lively character.

Candidate Dana received much criticism for her ultra Catholic views in an age when church scandals have stained the rule from Rome.  On a political level, Dana is a lightweight to boot, even aside from her strong catholic ethos which is thoroughly out of touch with modern Ireland.

David Norris was considered in recent years to be Ireland’s next president, but a number of blunders regarding writing letters of clemency on behalf of an ex-partner on trial in Israel for the alleged rape of a fifteen-year-old boy turned the public against the flamboyant senator.  He decided to pull out of the race, and then he re-entered it again shortly afterwards, only to find his campaign ineffective.  In years to come I think that David Norris will be seen as the greatest president Ireland never had, a gay left-wing intellectual who could have finally taken Ireland far from its right-wing backwater image and established it as a liberal nation.

As the campaign went on, the opinion polls indicated a surging support for the businessman Sean Gallagher, and up to four days before election day, opinion polls showed him as the clear favourite to win the presidency.  Only nine months after voting Fianna Fail out of government, the electorate were, amazingly, willing to elect a man with strong Fianna Fail business links for president.  Gallagher had flourished in the era of the Bertie Ahern generation, that same set of gangsters who had brought Ireland to financial ruin by 2008, and he appealed to the type of middle class who fancy themselves of the capitalist orientation, the type who had voted Fianna Fail, the type who had screwed up this country.  However, a meltdown occurred during the last live TV debate of the campaign which sounded the death knell for Gallagher’s presidential hopes.

Sinn Fein candidate Martin McGuinness questioned Sean Gallagher about a Fianna Fail fundraiser and pushed him so far that Gallagher stupidly admitted that he may have collected 5,000 euro in an envelope for the Fianna Fail headquarters from a convicted fuel smuggler in county Louth.  The live audience burst out in a great gasp followed by mocking laughter, thus ending any chances of Gallagher becoming Ireland’s ninth president.

As the votes were being counted five days later, it was clear that Gallagher’s popularity slumped, his Fianna Fail links had been exposed for what they were.  Mary Davis and Dana were the first to be eliminated, followed by David Norris and Gay Mitchell, leaving Martin McGuinness to finish third, a strong showing for the first ever Sinn Fein candidate to stand in a presidential election.  Gallagher finished second, but far behind Labour’s Michael D. Higgins, the new president of Ireland.

The fluent Irish speaker from Galway now takes on the mantle of being Ireland’s head of state for the next seven years.  Higgins was the poster boy for the champagne socialists of the 1980s and gained popularity among the youth and the more left-wing elements of they Labour party for his anti-Thatcher and -Reagan stance.  In the 1990s while Minister for the Arts, Higgins established the Irish language television network TG4 and turned a flagging film industry into one of the most thriving elements of the arts.

Michael D Higgins must now represent Ireland, a nation rife with economic woe, a nation with high unemployment and increasing emigration among its graduates, a nation which has elected a labour candidate to the presidency for the first time since the office was established in 1938.


Lily Murphy is 24 years old and comes from Cork city, Ireland.  She graduated last year from University College Cork with a B.A in history and politics.  She may be contacted at <Lilymurphycork@gmail.com>.


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