As the 2011 Irish Presidential election comes to a close, Emer Sugrue takes a look back at the campaign
The votes have been cast and the ballots counted and we finally have a new president. But before you settle back for seven years of forgetting the job ever existed, it’s time to rake over this news corpse just in case we missed any gold fillings. Despite the role being largely ceremonial and providing no influence over government policy whatsoever, the campaign was awash with impossible promises. Dana promised to use the veto powers she wouldn’t have, Mitchell made the controversial pledge to both understand Ireland’s past and believe in its future, and Davis declared a thousand more years of Mary. Luckily all the soon-to-be incumbent President Michael D Higgins promised was to be “a president for all the people” which is in fact, literally true. It’s that sort of transparent politics that got him the big job.
While some may complain about the ludicrous levels of media coverage for what amounts to a two month interview for an entirely pointless job, one thing the race did provide was an interesting snapshot of changing Irish values. Having an openly gay candidate would be almost unthinkable in many countries, even in relatively liberal western countries such as the United States, but it was not treated as an issue by the Irish press or the majority of the population. For balance we also had Gay Mitchell representing the “why did they have to go and ruin a perfectly good word” portion of the country. At the same time the most ferociously religious anti-abortion candidate did incredibly poorly, although that was possibly due to her most significant contribution to the international stage being on an actual stage. Even the fact that the winner is from the Labour party is quite impressive. The economic crisis has, occupations aside, seen quite a dramatic swing to the right in Europe, where worrying promises of ‘traditional values’ dominate rhetoric and the National Front’s Marianne Le Pen has a chance at the French presidency. As always, Ireland is the Yin to Europe’s Yang and we just yinned all over ourselves. Hopefully this campaign will lead to a re-evaluation of Ireland’s international reputation as a hyper-Catholic backwater nation.
There was no shortage of other controversy throughout the campaign however. Martin McGuinness was particularly problematic given his allegedly checkered past, his candidacy punctuated by widows and children of soldiers confronting him about his time in the IRA. My biggest concern was the fact that he was the only candidate with a real job as Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, which he gleefully ignored for two months. Sean “the money was just resting in my account” Gallagher started off as the astute Dragon businessman but things went sour when allegations began to abound of pocketed brown envelopes from smugglers, reviving Fianna Fáil’s legacy in the electorate’s political memory, and destroying his frankly baffling forty per cent support in the final week. He then compounded the controversy by accusing McGuinness of ‘political assassination’ and calling for people to come forward with information about IRA killings, risking both his credibility and kneecaps. Dana topped even that with a myriad of contentious headlines from owning an American passport, to family allegations to accusing people of slashing her tires. Look, it wasn’t a great song but I did manage to get over it. It turned out that nobody had done anything to Dana’s tires but herself, by driving on a flat.
Norris hit the papers early and even pulled out of the race when it emerged that he had written to an Israeli court asking for clemency for a former partner accused of rape, and again when he rejoined the race and it looked like the odd nomination system would exclude him despite his popularity. His last-minute nomination ensured that no one would bother trying to change the system for at least seven years, and after his high of claiming a potential twenty-one per cent of the vote he spent the rest of the campaign whittling it down to just six. Gay Mitchell stayed relatively controversy-free by mainly being too boring for anyone to write about, and the only attention Mary Davis got was for her innovative blurring of the lines between political campaign posters and a Kelloggs advert. Michael D Higgins meanwhile, emerged as the calm and competent ringleader of a circus where someone has accidentally replaced the animal feed with crack.
But finally this weekend it all ended, and we can look forward to seeing some actual news again. Michael D can slink back into the political shadows, albeit now the shadows in a gigantic state-provided White House, and Mary McAleese can go back to her life as… well, I’m sure she’ll find something to do. I look forward to the opening of many primary schools and shopping centres.