UPDATE (28 October): According to all the usual sources (RTE, Irish Times, Journal), there is every indication that Michael D. Higgins will be elected to the presidency. Huge swing away from Gallagher because of, well, what I wrote below. As my friend @Chasaveen rightly points out, whereas the words “Fianna Fáil” did NOT scare voters, the word “bagman” caused the electorate to collectively recoil.
An RTE telephone poll found that 17% of all voters switched their preference in the last week of the campaign – since the Frontline debate widely seen as won by Higgins and McGuinness and lost by Gallagher – away from Gallagher. Of those, two-thirds went to Higgins. If the poll is correct, a whopping 12% of the entire electorate swung from one candidate to another in a few days. Wow.
You are – I’m sure – as entertained about the October 27 Irish presidential election as I am. Er… Well, anyway…
There are a record seven candidates this time around, and the majority are nominal independents: Mary Davis (Ind), Seán Gallagher (Ind), Michael Higgins (Labour), Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin), Gay Mitchell (Fine Gael), David Norris (Ind), and Dana Rosemary Scallon (Ind).
Of the independents, Davis is a centrist former organizer of the Special Olympics, Gallagher is best known as a Dragons’ Den panellist, Norris is a left-leaning openly gay Senator, and Dana is, well, Dana – former Eurovision winner, MEP, and social conservative who usually provides the lion’s share of giggles when she runs for office.
What’s notable about the contest, candidate-wise, is how it does and doesn’t mirror the recent general election results.
Back in February, the Irish unceremoniously turfed the governing Fianna Fáil-Green coalition, eliminating the Greens from the Dáil entirely and giving FF its worst result ever. A large number of independents were elected, and the current Fine Gael-Labour coalition government has a massive majority in the Dáil. I approved of the result because, you might say, my instinctive bias is anti-Fianna Fáil.
Appropriate, then, to see a large number of independents in the race and – after ringing its hands for several weeks – FF failed to even nominate a candidate.
Well, sort of.
Lo and behold, it turns out that Gallagher has been involved with FF forever and is a former member of the party’s national executive, so in fact if not in name there is a Fianna Fáil candidate as far as I’m concerned.
This didn’t bother me when a) I wasn’t aware and b) the early polls hinted at a very different result. Initially it was Norris, the civil rights campaigner, who led, and those of us who like left-leaning gay Irish senators could easily envision a scenario in which Norris could win on Labour, Fine Gael, and indie transfers.
To the disappointment of his early supporters, Norris’ campaign has proven to be a bit of a train wreck. Is he in? Is he out? Does he lack sound judgement, or is he just a very poor campaigner? After seeming likely to win the Oireachtas support (20 TDs or senators) needed for nomination, Norris withdrew after a scandal surrounding his writing a letter asking for clemency for a former partner who had been convicted of the statutory rape of a fifteen-year-old Palestinian boy.
But then, with multiple polls showing Norris in the lead, he re-entered the race and managed to get enough support from local councils to be nominated. However, Norris’ questionable decisions and the uncertainty of his campaign caused his poll results to plummet by something like 20 points.
Which takes us to two recent polls, published October 16 by RED C and Quantum Research.
RED C: Gallagher 39%, Higgins 27%, McGuinness 13%, Mitchell 8%, Norris 7%, Davis 4%, Scallon 2%
Quantum: Higgins 36%, Gallagher 29%, McGuinness 13%, Norris 10%, Mitchell 6%, Davis 4%, Scallon 2%
It does strike me as stunning that Gay Mitchell, despite being the lead governing party’s nominee, and FG doing well in opinion polls, can only muster single-digit support. Norris is clearly down, but then so is McGuinness, it would seem, and that’s good news. The Quantum poll doesn’t bother me; Higgins would be my second pick after Norris, for whom I have a soft spot, and it’s easy to see how Labour’s guy could get elected on second preference votes from Norris, Mitchell, and Davis.
But WTF is up with the surge for Gallagher?
My initial reaction was that Gallagher – who, after all, is known as an entrepreneur – had bought his way into popularity. Fianna Fáil’s nominal reason (besides the embarrassment of another big loss) for not nominating its own candidate was that the party lacked funds, and hearing about Gallagher’s FF links, I assumed blithely that FF had encouraged him to run as a independent and spend his own money.
However, several blogs have pointed out that Gallagher filed tax returns indicating an income of a mere 12,000 euros (about $18,000), so first, how is Gallagher a successful entrepreneur, and second, who’s funding his campaign? [Note more recent news items about fundraisers for Gallagher featuring none other than former FF Taoiseach Brian Cowen.]
But even more so, I have to ask, Ireland, what the hell are you thinking? You finally turfed the dreaded Fianna Fáil from government, so why would you consider electing a FF insider? Are you daft? Are you blinded by the shine off Gallagher’s pate? Are you that impressed by Gallagher’s being on the telly?
Norris, as Norris himself would have it, is indeed the true independent in the race. Davis is tarnished by a long career of making a living off quangos to which she was named by FF, and for heaven’s sake, Gallagher essentially quit FF in order to run as an independent.
Only 17% cast their first preference votes for FF in the February election. Even if the Quantum poll is the best barometer, that means another 10% of the populace is that impressed by Seán Gallagher, failed businessman, tacky TV panellist, and (I repeat) Fianna Fáil insider.
What a dream come true for FF. They spend no money, they don’t campaign, and in the end they get to keep the presidency. So the outgoing president, Mary McAleese, is Fianna Fáil, but by all accounts McAleese has been an apolitical president, comparable to her Labour-nominated predecessor Mary Robinson, considered by many to be the finest Irish president in history. But I don’t think Seán Gallagher is a Mary McAleese or a Mary Robinson by any stretch of the imagination.
Ireland’s financial collapse has led inexorably to a shake-up of its political scene, and I suppose the poll volatility is a reflection of the country’s fluid partisan identification – whereas in the past, the largest single bloc of voters would vote in a donkey (or even Charles Haughey) if he or she were Fianna Fáil, that’s not the case now.
So why, in less than a year, would Ireland fall back into its old, stagnant, stale, corrupt habit of choosing one of the Soldiers of Destiny as its president? The mind boggles.
For what it’s worth, I’d vote Norris, Higgins, Davis, Mitchell in that order and would rather gouge my eyes out with a grapefruit spoon or attend a Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis than preference Gallagher, McGuinness, or Scallon. Well, maybe I’d rank Dana for a larf.
I figure that would get Ireland a Labour president, and that’s not so bad a result, even if Higgins does look like a hobbit.