In a couple of days time, on Thursday October 27th, the citizens of Ireland will make their way back to the polling stations. This time around, however, we won’t vote for a new government (more’s the pity) but for a new Head of State. A new president.
The presidency of Ireland lasts for a term of seven years and can only be held for two terms. Traditionally a president is unopposed should they choose to serve the second term, and historically most presidents have taken that option, remaining in office for the full 14 years. Health permitting, that is… Ireland’s first president, Douglas Hyde, was unable to serve his second term as a result of ill health and the fourth president, Erskine Childers, died a year into his first term. Childers was succeeded by Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh who resigned after two years as a result of a series of clashes with the government of the day (it was the beginning of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and Ó Dálaigh was far more militantly republican than the government). Mary Robinson, of course, was offered the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the end of her first term and did not, as a result, take up the option of a second term. All of the others served the maximum 14 years. And our current president, Mary McAleese, has reached the end of her second term, so the post must once again be filled.
But does it really matter who holds the presidency? Despite being democratically elected, the position is more akin to that of – for example – the Queen of England than it is to that of the President of the United States. It’s a largely ceremonial role and one that offers little room for influencing national policy. Despite the strident claims of one candidate in particular, the president will not be able to prevent a further expansion of European control over Irish social and economic policy… no matter how often the candidate might appear on TV brandishing the Irish constitution like a sword. But more about the individuals in a bit.
For now, let me dig a little deeper into that phrase, “a largely ceremonial role”. Because “largely” does not mean “completely” and the president does have a tiny bit of real power as well as – potentially at least – a fair amount of cultural influence, and therefore indirectly, political influence. The “real” power comes from the fact that the president is required to sign any Bill passed by parliament before it becomes Law. And Article 26 of the Irish Constitution states that the President may – with the exception of national budgets and bills enacting the results of a referendum – refer any bill to the Supreme Court should they feel the Bill “is … repugnant to this Constitution or to any provision thereof.”
Now, while this power has been very rarely exercised, there is a school of thought which suggests that the various laws that led up to the ECB/IMF bailout (including the infamous and disastrous bank guarantee of September 2008) effectively undermined Irish sovereignty and could, therefore, have been interpreted as anti-constitutional. Whether or not the Supreme Court would have agreed with that interpretation is, of course, another thing entirely. But President McAleese could certainly have thrown a spanner in the works back in September 2008 by delaying the bank guarantee. This could have had a massive impact on our recent history (for better or for worse, we’ll obviously never know). That said, there’s another school of thought which suggests that the bank guarantee and subsequent bailout legislation were “Money bills” and were – as a result – immune from presidential referral. However, I believe there is enough room for interpretation on that question to have at least provoked a constitutional crisis should President McAleese have chosen to do so.
Let me stress; all of that is hypothetical. President McAleese has been a fine president and I’m not criticising her here. The social, political and economic landscape was radically different when she was elected 14 years ago and she was certainly not elected to be a political firebrand. Her ambassadorial / ceremonial role was implicit in her presidency and this almost certainly aided her quietly effective social campaigning on issues such as gender equality and sectarianism. As much as I personally would have liked her to do so; had she suddenly decided to attack government economic policy 12 years into her presidency, it would have been with a questionable mandate.
This time around, however, there is at least one candidate openly campaigning with a view to testing just how far a president can go to obstruct government policy. And while I do not – for reasons I will get on to soon – endorse that particular candidate, there’s little doubt that people have the option to cast their vote for a much more “active” president this time round (or not… there are several “won’t rock the boat” candidates in the running too). The Irish Presidency is an office with limited power, yes, but will the people vote for someone who promises to push those limits?
There is another sort of power inherent in the presidency. The power of symbolism. To anyone sceptical of the power of symbols, I suggest you walk into a packed synagogue wearing a swastika armband and see how quickly a symbol can inspire robust action. The effective use of symbols can bring about social change just as quickly as any law. In 1990 Mary Robinson was elected as Ireland’s first female president. Robinson was a woman with the backing of Irish socialists, a woman who as a campaigner had previously spearheaded the law that saw contraception legalised in Ireland and the law that saw women sitting on juries for the first time. It would be naive to suggest that modern Ireland is gender neutral; that women enjoy an equal status within the institutions of power. However, let’s not belittle the progress that has been made, and Mary Robinson’s election as president was a powerful message of just how far the equality agenda had come by 1990. Furthermore, it helped consolidate that agenda and there are two candidates in this coming election whose election could send an equally powerful message on other issues.
The first of the two candidates whose election would be powerfully symbolic is independent Senator, David Norris. Norris is openly gay. Now, it’s possible for public figures to be openly gay without that fact playing any part in their public statements or – if a politician – their policy decisions. Norris, however, has championed gay rights in Ireland for most of his life. He was the first openly gay person elected to public office in the country. He founded the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, and his 14 year campaign to overthrow the Irish anti-homosexuality law was finally successful in 1988. The election of David Norris to the presidency would be – whatever else it might be – a triumph for gay rights on this island. Just as the election of Mary Robinson in 1990 didn’t make Ireland gender neutral overnight, so the election of Norris wouldn’t signal the end of homophobia. However, it would be a massive symbolic act by the citizenry of this country. And while there is far more to Norris than just his sexual orientation, we should not underestimate the importance of that symbolic act.
Symbols matter. They’re not all that matters. But they do matter.
But of course Norris is far more than just a gay rights campaigner. He’s an academic and Joycean scholar (very much a point in his favour in my eyes). As an independent senator, he was one of the few politicians to vote against the bank guarantee and has steadfastly and consistently criticised the economic policies of the current and last governments. Within the ranks of the political establishment he’s been a lone voice in the wilderness on a whole bunch of issues. He is outspoken, and he’s erudite and humorous with it. At the same time, his ebullient manner and rarified accent does paint him as a bit of an eccentric in the eyes of some.
Norris started the campaign way out in front in the polls. A couple of months ago the media were almost painting him as a sure thing. Since then, however, he’s been hit by a succession of scandals and – if we’re to believe the polls – his support has plummeted. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the negative stories were – in large part – a tabloid campaign to undermine him. Maybe it was just the inherent anti-intellectualism of the tabloid press rather than homophobia. Or maybe it was a bit of both.
That said, he really dug himself into a hole with the “letters for clemency” scandal. It filled the newspapers for a week, yet the sum-total of the factual information that the average Irish person knows about the issue could fit into a single paragraph. It was outright character assassination, and yet another in a long line of new lows for the mainstream media. But it’s also true that Norris handled it far worse than he might have done and managed to spectacularly shoot himself in the foot on the Vincent Browne debate. I’m not going to rake over those old coals, but my take on it is simple enough… just because some members of the public might well be interested in reading the letters, does not make their publication “in The Public Interest”.
Anyway, Norris will be getting my first preference vote. Yes I think he handled the “letters” scandal badly, but it won’t stop me voting for him. He’s the best person for the job.
My second preference vote will go to Michael D. Higgins. Up until the last few days that wasn’t the case, but recent polls have made up my mind. If Norris isn’t going to be President, then I want my support to transfer to the person most likely to beat Seán Gallagher (about whom, more later).
Higgins is the official candidate of the Irish Labour Party and I’m desperately trying not to hold that against him. Like Norris, he’s also a scholar and an intellectual. A poet on the left fringe of his (rightward-marching) party… kind of like Tony Benn in the years following the establishment of “New” Labour. Higgins voted against the bank guarantee and has, I suspect, been nominated by the Labour Party partly in the hope that he won’t be a thorn in their side as they implement public sector cuts over the next few years. A president who spoke publicly against government policy would be pushing the limits of their office.
And one thing that Michael D. Higgins won’t be, you see, is a president who pushes the limits of the office. He has called for an overhaul of the Irish constitution and has made it very clear that he does not believe the current government (in which his party is a coalition partner) is a force for social justice. He has decried the values of the Celtic Tiger and lambasted the rampant capitalism it brought to Ireland. But he has a very conservative view of the role of the president and seeks to use the office to initiate a “national conversation” on our social and economic values rather than to directly challenge or obstruct the government in any way. A part of him might secretly daydream of using the position of president to overtly forward a socialist agenda, but it’s not something he’d actually do. A Michael D. Higgins presidency will not be remembered as a revolutionary one. Whether or not any president could effectively act upon a revolutionary agenda is highly questionable of course, but Michael D. Higgins won’t be asking that question. And I worry that he may well be an easy man for the government to ignore once they’ve got him safely ensconced in the big house in Phoenix Park.
Still, by and large he’s a man of honour and integrity and if we are to have a “national conversation” about our values, I can’t think of many better men to chair it. Also, if the polls are to be believed, Higgins is currently the only candidate with any chance of beating Seán Gallagher, automatically earning him my transfer.
I considered giving my second preference to the other “highly symbolic” candidate I mentioned. Martin McGuinness. Let me pause to allow some of you a moment to seethe. Even more divisive than the scandal-hit Norris, Martin McGuinness (yes, that Martin McGuinness) is by far and away the most controversial candidate in this presidential campaign. He has come under fire from many in the media, and the entire campaign by the official Fine Gael candidate seems based around McGuinness-bashing. In fact, the reaction he provoked from many quarters in the establishment was – almost as much as any personal or symbolic qualities of the man – partly the reason I considered voting for him. I don’t subscribe to the maxim that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but for me it’s definitely an endorsement to have the voices of conservativism raised so stridently against you.
Just as the election of Norris would not eliminate homophobia, the election of McGuinness as President of Ireland would not draw a line under ‘The Troubles’. However, it would be another step away from that dark period of history. There’s no question that the peace process in Northern Ireland was the work of many parties and individuals. It was probably Tony Blair’s finest hour. The same can be said for Bertie Ahern. And the unionists in the north also played a huge part. But I genuinely believe that nobody took a bigger risk (both politically and in a very real “bullet in the head if this doesn’t work” sense) than Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams. It was they who convinced the IRA to put down their weapons. They who walked into darkened rooms filled with men carrying guns and told them they were going to make compromises on their behalf. Blair didn’t have to do that. Ahern didn’t have to do that. I seriously doubt any prominent unionist politician had to do that.
So despite the attempts of Fine Gael to belittle his role in making a success of the Good Friday Agreement, I believe that Martin McGuinness is a peace-maker. That he was a man of violence before that…? Yes he was. Peace-makers sometimes are. I abhor what the IRA did and I abhor the actions of McGuinness so far as they were a part of that. The IRA took a legitimate social grievance and turned it into a campaign of violence that lasted a quarter century. I am not someone who claims that violence can never be justified. But bombs in shopping precincts? Fighting tyranny with those tactics is just another form of tyranny.
However, when a man of violence renounces violence. When he goes further and risks his own life to compel others to renounce it. When he goes further still and sits at a table with his sworn enemy and negotiates a truce to bring peace after more than 25 years of shootings and bombings. Then he is no longer a man of violence. And let’s not forget that the mainstream political parties that now attack McGuinness for his IRA membership are themselves a legacy of organisations that today would be defined as terrorists. Éamon de Valera, president between 1959 and 1973, was himself a “man of violence” once. And compared with Martin McGuinness, de Valera did a damn sight less renunciation and peace-making.
Not that McGuinness is the ideal candidate of course. I understand that political campaigns are all about self-promotion, but if I hear him dropping Nelson Mandela’s name once more I think I’ll scream. And while he has every right to campaign on his track record as a peace-maker, he needs to come up with some different sound-bites. Everyone in Ireland has heard McGuinness say “I was able to build a relationship with loyalist leaders Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson” at least 15 times in the past few weeks. It’s an impressive achievement Martin, and it might have secured a vote from me if it wasn’t for Gallagher, but at least vary the wording now and then.
At no stage did I consider voting for any of the other four candidates In fact, I’d happily write a negative number alongside a couple of their names if such a thing were possible. And at the top of that negative list is the official Fine Gael candidate, Gay Mitchell. Thankfully he’s nowhere in the polls so I don’t have to worry about having Mr. Narky as Head of State.
Let me start by saying that Gay Mitchell really rubs me up the wrong way. On television he comes across as smug, patronising and frankly unlikeable… he may be nothing like that in the flesh, but most of us are only ever going to encounter him in the media. If he had some good ideas or a positive agenda, I could probably overlook his abrasive media personality. But he doesn’t, so I can’t. His outburst at the end of the Pat Kenny debate was bewildering though strangely appropriate.
Not only could the country not expect any substantial action from a Mitchell presidency, I doubt he’d even carry out the ceremonial aspect of the role very well. In parliamentary campaigns where policy issues can create friction between candidates, negative campaigning is generally unedifying but tolerated. But to have such a relentlessly negative campaign for an office like the Irish presidency suggests that Gay Mitchell and Fine Gael have seriously misjudged the mood of the Irish people. At times during the TV debates it honestly felt like Mitchell was in the campaign for no other reason than to attack Martin McGuinness. It was embarrassing.
Mitchell represents the forces of Irish conservatism more than perhaps anyone else in the race. He is the official candidate of the centre-right government currently pandering to the demands of The Market in such a spineless fashion. A government whose robust promises during the general election campaign have evaporated with remarkable speed… and who have dedicated themselves to continuing the disastrous job of the previous administration. A job that involves asset-stripping this nation for the benefit of an international financial system that’s completely out of control. A job that, when complete, will have plunged future generations into a debt they never asked for and from which they have derived little or no benefit.
On top of that though, Mitchell is an Old School Catholic of a kind this country no longer needs. Of course, realising that hardcore Catholicism isn’t a vote-winner any more, he’s played down his links with Rome. In a radio interview he denied he had any connection with the fundamentalist Catholic, anti-abortion organisation, “Dignitatis Humanae Institute”. Yet a spokesman for the organisation appears to contradict this, suggesting that Mitchell co-authored the Institute’s manifesto (the “Universal Declaration of Human Dignity”). Mitchell’s stance on issues like abortion and homosexuality (including gay marriage) are straight out of The Vatican and are not, in my view, worthy of the Head of State of a modern nation.
Another candidate to whom I’d give a negative vote if such a thing were possible, is independent candidate Seán Gallagher. Unlike Gay Mitchell, who represents Ireland as it was a few decades ago – caught in the terrible grip of a Church that had long since lost its soul – Gallagher represents the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger. And I’m genuinely not sure which is worse. Certainly neither would gain my vote.
Gallagher is that ultimate symbol of modern consumer capitalism, the “celebrity entrepreneur”. Young, over-confident to the point of arrogance, and constantly insisting that his track-record of financial success somehow automatically translates to success as a president, Gallagher is a product of an unholy union between Fianna Fáil and The Dragon’s Den. Until a few months ago Gallagher was a member of a political party that spectacularly misused their decade of power and left this country stricken for generations to come. He wisely severed all official ties with that party before announcing his candidacy, so that he could run as an independent. But frankly I’ve yet to hear a single thing from Gallagher that suggests independence of thought.
Instead he regularly trots out the clichés of the modern capitalist. As a “dragon” on the Irish version of Dragon’s Den, Gallagher has sat, week after week, and dangled his piles of cash in front of desperate people before cruelly yanking it away in the name of televisual entertainment. He talks about business and entrepreneurship in the same way a priest talks about God. It’s the reason for living. It’s the salvation of the nation. It is unquestionably a good thing. It will save us all.
It was the mantra of modern capitalism that got Ireland into the mess it’s currently in, and Gallagher hopes to carry that mantra with him as Head of this damaged State. The man marries reality television with a grasping free-market ideology. He pays lip-service to social justice while revelling in the inequities of market capitalism. Were he to become our next president, it would be almost as depressing a decision by the Irish electorate as their selection of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. More than that, I honestly feel it would haunt us over the next 7 years. The Celtic Tiger is dead. It was never more than a sick joke in the first place. But now the corpse is starting to stink. The Celtic Tiger is never coming back and although people may agree with you when you say that to them, I’m not sure it has really sunk in yet. But it will do. And when it does, having a Tiger Cub like Gallagher as president could end up being a national embarrassment.
Yet he’s way out in front in the polls. Perhaps the implosion on the Pat Kenny debate a couple of nights ago will affect his turnout… are people really already prepared to forgive Fianna Fáil? More than that, to once again embrace the brown envelope culture that pervaded them? Dear God, I hope not.
Also running as an independent candidate is Mary Davis. I don’t have much to say about her. Mostly because she’s kept rigidly to a rather limited script during the campaign, and relatively speaking the tabloids haven’t had a massive go at her. Despite being an “independent”, Mary Davis is almost as much an establishment insider as Mitchell, Gallagher or Michael D. Her main claim to fame is the fact that she headed the Special Olympics committee during what’s been acknowledged as a very successful Special Olympics held in Ireland a few years back. She insists – perhaps with some justification – that this experience would be invaluable for an international ambassadorial role like the presidency.
However I was mystified by her apparent eagerness early in the campaign to constantly remind the media about the various “boards” she has been appointed to over the past few years; earning large amounts of money for a handful of meetings. Over the past 6 years she earned €150,000 sitting on the board of a bank and a building society. Given the disastrous track-record of Irish banks and building societies during that period, her only defence seems to be that the position she occupied involved no actual power or responsibility. Either she was part of the banking establishment during the run up to the crash, or else she was drawing a handsome salary from the banks for doing very little. This was bound to alienate a hell of a lot of people, and I don’t think her campaign ever recovered.
During that same period of time she earned over €85k for sitting on the board of the Dublin Airport Authority (but presumably bears no responsibility for the various screw-ups during the design and construction of Terminal 2). She earned over €35k for sitting on the board of the Broadcast Commission of Ireland (BCI), and while her working relationship with Irish media-magnate Denis O’Brien has generated a few column inches in the papers, it’s never erupted into a full-blown scandal. O’Brien is chairman of the Special Olympics Ireland Council of Patrons and worked with Davis on the Special Olympics in 2004. He is a contributor to her campaign. And whenever the BCI was voting on whether or not it was appropriate for O’Brien to expand his ownership of Irish media, Mary Davis always voted in his favour. Another case of the mutual back-scratching of the establishment. Nobody seems surprised, let alone outraged.
Though of course, her position in the polls has never been good and it’ll be a small miracle if she gets 10% of first preference votes. So while Ireland does look willing to elect one business-as-usual insider claiming to be independent; it’s not this one.
And last but by no means least is Dana Rosemary Scallon. While I shan’t be voting for Dana, unlike either Gallagher or Davis, she at least merits the label of “independent” candidate. Well, in a political sense anyway; her ties to the Catholic Church rob her of total independence. But as far as party politics go, Dana is equally dismissive of the lot of them, and while she has been an independent MEP, there’s no way she could be described as an establishment insider.
Originally coming to prominence when she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970 (with the massive worldwide hit, All Kinds of Everything) Dana subsequently went on to have a relatively – if mystifyingly – successful career in music. In the early 80s she broke into the American Christian Music market in a big way, which as it turns out, is a big market.
She ran for president 14 years ago and has also served as an MEP so is not a complete novice to campaigning, though there were times she gave that impression. She had a meltdown on the Prime Time debate and her early campaign appearances in which she constantly brandished a copy of the Constitution made her easy to caricature. Like Mitchell, her ties to the Church make her a somewhat “unfashionable” candidate in a country that is not quite done with its anti-Catholic backlash.
Her TV meltdown related to yet another tabloid scandal (a story about someone in her family) which again revealed the Stygian depths to which the media will stoop to package and sell sensation. The case is something that should be handled by the family and by the legal system; the glare of the media helps absolutely nobody and risks making the situation even worse for everyone. And there is absolutely no public interest served by running the story unless Dana was implicated in any wrong-doing (which she wasn’t). But hey, if it helps sell copies of The Irish Sun who cares if it’s poisoning our culture? Right?
Anyway, Dana is polling in last place and has been for some time. The tabloids didn’t rob her of support as she never really seemed to have much… but they did make it more difficult for her gain any. Still, she didn’t do herself many favours either. Her strident claims that she would single-handedly wrest our sovereignty back from Europe – at least that was the message she appeared to be conveying – mostly had the effect of demonstrating that she didn’t actually understand the role of the President. McGuinness and Norris might be willing to test the limits of the office, but Dana gave the impression that she didn’t know there were any. On top of that, her calm insistence that the Seal of the Confessional trumps national law and is enshrined by the freedom of religion clauses in the constitution, made her sound like a religious extremist in the Vincent Browne debate.
And there you have it
So those are the seven choices we’re faced with on Thursday. Norris would be by far the best president in my view, but seems unlikely to win. Gallagher looks like he’s heading for a victory, which would surely demonstrate – in the words of David Norris – that the Irish people “haven’t learnt much” from the recent economic disaster. We can only hope that Michael D. Higgins will gain enough second preference votes to pip Gallagher to the post.
Also on Thursday we have a couple of referenda (I’ll be voting ‘No’ on each*) and a by-election, though not in my constituency. There’s definitely a strangeness about the fact that at a time when momentous choices need to be made about the path our society takes into the future, we’re being offered a vote on a largely ceremonial position. Then again, we recently had a general election and the public voted for the current government…
… maybe it’s not such a good idea for us to be making important decisions.