Tomorrow, we go to the polls to elect a president, and the incumbent is virtually certain to be re-elected in a landslide. But let nobody tell you that this exercise in democracy has not been useful. At this point, let us take a few moments to reflect on how our half-dozen presidential contenders have fared, and what we have learned along the way.
Liadh Ní Riada:
Ní Riada is arguably the most interesting of all the candidates.
The daughter of a well-known composer, and heavily involved in the Irish language movement, she represents a new and more positive face of Sinn Féin.
Telegenic and articulate, she was the only one of the contenders who could conceivably attack Michael D. from the Left.
Ní Riada also had a large and highly disciplined organisation behind her, one which on a good day could claim between 15%-20% of first preference votes in a general election.
In spite of all this, the most recent poll had her in third place, on a paltry 9% support. Even half of Sinn Féin supporters aren’t voting for her. What gives?
It’s not her fault that she could not surmount the barriers before her. Conservative-leaning voters are still deeply reticent about supporting any Sinn Féin candidate, and liberals are very happy to keep Higgins where he is.
Paradoxically, her clean-cut image and independent streak may have prevented her from mobilising her own base, also.
During the campaign, she acknowledged that bullying is indeed a problem in her party, and spoke about the ‘dreadful’ treatment which Mairia Cahill received at the IRA’s hands.
She even said that as President she would wear a Poppy on Armistice Day.
None of this will have gone down well with the radical element within Sinn Féin. To this day, the natural reaction of the party to any form of dissent can involve the efficacious use of a baseball bat.
Nevertheless, she has acquitted herself well during her brief presidential run, and in so doing has raised her profile somewhat. She made no great inroads during this campaign, but she did herself no great damage either, and that is more than can be said for some of her rivals.
Campaign rating: 3/5
If there was one word that sprung to mind whenever Seán Gallagher was mentioned over the last seven years, it would have been ‘sympathy.’
This man would have been elected President in 2011 had the state broadcaster not intervened to destroy Gallagher’s campaign and elect a hardened leftist in his stead.
The resulting settlement for damages is believed to have netted Gallagher around €130,000. But nothing could have properly compensated a man who had come to the threshold of being elected as Head-of-State, but who will never return there.
Where did it all go wrong?
In 2011, Gallagher’s business background offered something different, but that unique selling proposition was negated during this election by the fact there were two other business people in the race.
But the problem always ran deeper than that. Nobody knows why he ran this time. In spite of him stringing together some half-decent campaign promises, the central reason for Gallagher being there still appears to be unfinished business, and that was not a good look, at all.
The low point of his campaign came when he refused to attend the first televised debate on the grounds that President Higgins would not be attending. On one level, he was right: Higgins needed to be taken to task for refusing to participate.
But in tying his participation to that of the incumbent, Gallagher implied that there was something that separated him from the other four contenders. There isn’t, and that arrogance cost him.
In running again, he has gained nothing, while losing the commodity he once held in abundance: public sympathy.
The Gallagher of today resembles the washed-up bloated De Niro speaking to the mirror at the end of Raging Bull: “I could have had class, I could have been a contender, I could have been somebody, instead of being a bum, which is what I am…”
Campaign rating: 2/5
Duffy was out of the blocks early in the summer, and initially threatened to make inroads.
While he always lacked likeability, he did look the part. He was well-known from his role on Dragons’ Den, and had built a credible reputation as a business figure, and one who supposedly knew how to do communications inside and out.
Where did Duffy go so catastrophically wrong? Over-reach was certainly a problem, that and ineptitude. When speaking to The Sunday Business Post in August, Duffy spoke about his plans to publish 8-10 position papers about issues such as social media, faith, banking, etc.
Two months on, and no position papers have been written.
Duffy revealed this evidence of his own laziness while being grilled by Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio 1 several weeks ago, and to call that interview a car crash would be a kindness.
It did actually focus on a car crash – one which Duffy was involved in and prosecuted for back in 1978. “It’s one of those collisions that almost didn’t happen…” he explained, as if that sentence could not also have been said about every single car crash since the dawn of the Model-T.
Bemused listeners learned too that Duffy had changed his name from Liam to Gavin around the time of his prosecution, and there were two more recent driving convictions.
The oddest thing of all about this performance is that Duffy works in PR, and presumably gives clients media training in how to conduct interviews effectively.
That – coupled with his failure to produce basic documents he set out to produce – is surely the most damning indictment of all in relation to his competence.
No candidate comes out of this more damaged than Duffy. Not only is he incapable of being President; he doesn’t look to be able to do his current job either.
Campaign rating: 0.5/5
Joan Freeman also began with bright hopes, but her campaign has failed to take off for rather different reasons.
It’s not like she had nothing going for her. For a long time, it looked like she might have been the only woman in the race. Freeman is a respected figure in the charity sector, knows mental health inside out, and though a member of the Seanad, she could also credibly present herself as an independent voice.
Her performance during this race has been abysmal, however. As someone from a religious background – and the aunt of Maria Steen – Freeman faced something of a challenge in presenting herself to the people. Campaigning as a pro-life option would have been futile, but her 730,000 fellow No voters would have formed a strong base had she appealed to them even slightly.
She did not. Instead, Freeman chose to publicly distance herself conservative voters on several occasions.
These were voters who could easily have been won over, and yet she chose not to go after them, but to instead try to appeal to people who would not vote for her if their lives depended on it.
Wooden in debate, and weak on constitutional questions, Freeman also comported herself with a large dollop of arrogance.
In one of his better moments in the campaign, Gavin Duffy responded to a question from moderator Pat Kenny about Freeman’s pro-life views potentially disqualifying her from the office. He defended her strongly, but Joan was unimpressed by this display of courtesy. “Thank you, but I don’t need rescuing,” she snapped.
Maybe not, but she needed a change in attitude, and a change in approach. From 1990 onwards, the Áras has been a lunatic asylum for those with delusions of grandeur. Given how she has acted up to this point, perhaps it is for the best that she isn’t going to be moving in any time soon, or in the distant future.
Campaign rating: 1/5
Michael D. Higgins:
Our president is about to extend his lease on Áras an Uachtaráin for another seven years. With the full weight of the political establishment behind him, and guarded by an adoring media, he never had to worry about his re-election prospects.
But a small few journalists have been doing their jobs, and some lines of questioning have embarrassed a man who has preached solidarity loudly, but practiced opulence shamelessly. We now know that while in office, President Michael D. Higgins has:
- Received an unaudited allowance of over €300k per annum.
- Stayed in a €3,000-a-night hotel while on a trip to Geneva.
- Spent almost €100,000 more of your money on presidential photos and videos in the run-up to this election.
- Continued to pocket his €19,000-per-annum NUIG pension while also drawing his enormous presidential salary.
- Benefitted from unspecified taxpayer-funded upgrading works on his private home in Galway.
- Became a landlord after buying a house at auction during the economic and housing crises.
- Used the Government Learjet to fly to Belfast after sending his car up North to pick him up upon his arrival.
- Claimed that the Belfast flight had been necessary as the PSNI had not been unable to provide security, before changing his story to say that his own staff had advised him to do this, before then repeatedly refusing to elaborate about how this process occurred.
Quite a rap sheet!
He’ll be under much greater scrutiny in his second term, and he won’t like that at all. One thing is certain: we will have Moneybaggins to kick around for some time yet.
Campaign rating: 0/5
The name of the star entertainer of this strange and turbulent campaign has been spoken in every home and workplace across Ireland for the last few weeks.
His background is unusual for a prospective president. The Derryman appears to have played no role in Irish politics at all up until this point, and he has spent large portions of his life working in the United States and Australia.
Right from the get-go, he demonstrated a refreshing disregard for the opinions of the chattering classes in Irish media and politics. His interview with The Irish Independent in August was illustrative of his approach.
The presidential salary? “Bonkers.” Brexit’s likely effects? “[A] huge big yawn.” Abortion-on-demand? Against it!
Casey also hit out at Higgins for praising Communists Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, and in the coming months he fully embraced his chosen role as attack dog against Higgins, which included attacking Higgins’s dogs, funnily enough.
But it was Casey’s comments in relation to Traveller ethnicity, and separately in regard to the social welfare system, which really kick-started the firestorm.
Enough ink has been spilled about those remarks: but in critiquing a policy of creating protected classes, Casey struck a chord with an enormous number of Irish voters. By doubling down and slamming the welfare state and the expectation of some that the State has to look after them while others work hard to provide for themselves, he also spoke for a very substantial number of people.
Irish politics has been rotting from within due to the rise of media handlers and assorted hangers-on whose greatest focus is on preventing political candidates from speaking directly and saying what they actually think.
Casey is not part of that milieu though. That is why Varadkar clearly fears him, and it is also why growing numbers of Irish people who are sick of how debate is progressively being shut down are now considering sending a message.
Casey won’t win this election. But in being himself and calling a spade a spade, he has won the respect of a great many people.
Campaign rating: 4/5
What more is there to add? Democracy is a precious and beautiful thing. When entering the polling booth and selecting your candidate, remember the gift passed down to us by our forebears.
There is no such thing as a pointless election.