Everyone’s an underdog in Ireland’s presidential race

A gay-rights activist and a former IRA leader figure among those generating unusual excitement

It’s a real horse race!

Wenn/Keystone Press

Presidential elections in Ireland never mattered much. The job at stake consists, by and large, of greeting foreign heads of state, kissing babies and attending ceremonies. To some, it is even bizarre that voters should go to the polls to elect such a powerless president, a public office that most other European countries with similar figureheads fill through nomination, usually by parliament. This time, though, it’s different. The list of presidential hopefuls, in fact, includes a gay rights activist, a former leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, a Donald Trump-style businessman and a pro-life pop singer, in a topsy-turvy campaign that’s dominating Irish headlines and turning heads around the world.

The unusual set of candidates, says Paul Bew, a professor of politics at Queen’s University Belfast, reflects the Republic of Ireland’s anti-establishment mood. Faced with a $29-billion austerity program meant to pave the way for a $119-billion bailout package from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, voters are largely disillusioned with those who led them to more than a decade of record economic growth, but also, eventually, a disastrous financial crisis. “The Irish bourgeoisie, the heros of the Celtic Tiger, are now in disgrace,” he says.

Michael Higgins, who was until recently the front-runner, makes up for his long record in politics, which would effectively cast him as a member of the political establishment, by being “well to the left of the Irish mainstream,” says Bew. The 70-year-old former Labour cabinet minister, a university lecturer with snow-white hair, a taste for seizure-inducing ties and a famous dislike for Ronald Reagan and free-rein capitalism, sounds like he would be right at home among the protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

David Norris, a senator and James Joyce expert at Dublin’s Trinity College who is openly gay, also made waves earlier in the campaign. A Protestant academic with an English accent, Norris, one would think, had all the traits of “the worst possible candidate” to run in a country like Ireland, quips Eoin O’Malley, a professor in the school of law and government at Dublin City University. And yet, up until July, polls gave him as the most likely winner‚ an indication, adds O’Malley, that a large number of voters seemed quite keen on giving their overwhelmingly Catholic republic a socially progressive image makeover. Norris’s campaign, however, almost ended when news broke that he had written to an Israeli court appealing for clemency for a former partner who had been convicted of the statutory rape of a 15-year-old Palestinian male. The revelation touched a sensitive chord in a country where public outrage over alleged cases of child abuse by Catholic priests recently led the Holy See to recall the papal nuncio in Dublin. In the wake of the PR crisis, Norris’s support has plummeted.

For awhile it seemed as if Irish voters could still drop a political bombshell by electing a former IRA chief of staff: Martin McGuinness, who used to be a leader of the Catholic militant organization and currently serves as the deputy first minister in Northern Ireland. In one poll McGuiness was leading the race, although his support has since dropped. In the 1970s he served a jail sentence in the republic for possession of explosive material and ammunition, but by 1998 he was one of the main architects of the Good Friday Agreement, which led to the IRA’s disarmament in 2005. It’s that trajectory from terrorist to peacemaker that had many Irish pondering a vote for him, says Bew. Still, the thought of president McGuinness hosting a royal visit from nearby Britain would send a shudder down the spine of any master of ceremonies. Only five months ago, in fact, the Northern Irish politician publicly refused to attend the Irish state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II, though he insists he is prepared to greet the sovereign if elected president.

In a surprising twist, Sean Gallagher, a millionaire entrepreneur best known for his role in the reality show Dragons’ Den, has become the front-runner, with the most recent poll giving him 39 per cent support compared to Higgins’s 27 per cent. A self-made man, Gallagher, who calls his message “wholly non-party political,” runs a $14-million technology company; his website proclaims that he “understands the challenges faced by people and has worked in almost every industry.” There is also a mention of his own “challenges”—Gallagher was born almost totally blind because of congenital cataracts, and only state of the art surgery later gave him eyesight.

Among the other candidates is Dana Scallon, another celebrity. A former pop star who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970, she has the support of conservative Catholics, but her anti-abortion stand makes her an unpalatable choice for many. Meanwhile, the amount of media attention devoted to the race has been unprecedented, says Clodagh Harris, a lecturer at University College Cork in the country’s south. In 1997, she recalls, voter turnout for the presidential election was a mere 47 per cent, compared to 66 per cent for the general election held the same year. This time, though, expect lineups at the polls.

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