Celebrity candidates, party splits and ex-IRA men- the Irish presidential election is a journalist’s dream. It’s become such a bitter and frankly bizarre campaign that nobody even batted an eyelid when Martin Sheen, Hollywood star and American citizen, was proposed as a potential candidate. Hell, I don’t think anyone would bat an eyelid if Charlie Sheen was put forward. Insults have been flung, reputations have been savaged and one of the oldest parties in the state has almost torn itself apart. All this for a job which mostly entails smiling and waving?
To say Mary McAleese was suited for the presidency is an understatement. She expressly understood the constitutional responsibility of the president: that is to sign in bills, uphold the constitution, greet foreign dignitaries and do what they’re told by the Taoiseach of the day. The President’s powers “shall be exercisable and performable by him only on the advice of the Government”, to quote Article 13 of the Constitution. So which of the gigantic egos involved in the presidential race could possibly be able to sit still in the Aras when the government says so?
Mary McAleese’s speeches on bridge-building may have been sickly, but they summarised the role of the president excellently. It’s all about unifying people, building links between communities and countries and most importantly, it’s about representing Ireland with the dignity our country deserves.
Going by the election race so far can we really say that any of our candidates will represent us with the necessary dignity befitting the office?
Let’s examine the evidence. Firstly we had the spectacle of the Fine Gael nominations last July; they put John Bruton, Mairead McGuinness and Sean Kelly, before Pat Cox and Avril Doyle threw their hats in the ring. Seamus Heaney, whose one qualification for the job was the ability to write his own speeches, was suggested too, before the party majority decided on Gay Mitchell to Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s obvious disappointment. “Am I supposed to be going around like a Cheshire cat grinning at everything?” he snapped at a journalist who had the temerity to suggest he was a little dissatisfied with the party’s choice of candidate.
To Kenny’s defence, Mitchell has hardly lit up the campaign. “Who’s the Fine Gael candidate?” asked Marian Clohosey, 22, a NUIG student. In a controversial election, the nearest Mitchell has come to rocking the boat is his letter pleading for clemency for a murderer in America. Even this pretty controversial action has been overshadowed by David Norris’ own letter-writing skills.
Mitchell’s nomination may have led to some bitterness among Fine Gael but it’s nothing compared to the in-fighting the presidential election has led to in Fianna Fail camp. Micheal Martin’s tenuous hold on his party has been exposed by the spat. The party had announced as far back as August that they would not be running a candidate. It was a sensible decision, as they are financially and numerically depleted from the last election, and the name Fianna Fail currently holds some very bad associations indeed. But then there was the farcical speculation that Fianna Fail would support Gay Byrne as an independent candidate. Byrne entered the fray for a day before deciding that it wasn’t for him. Eamon O’Cuiv made threats to form his own party if they didn’t run a candidate, Senator Labhras O’Murchu went on a solo run to get himself nominated and Bertie Ahern piped up criticising the party. All in all, a very nasty headache for Micheal Martin.
And what of David Norris? He has been the most discussed of all presidential candidates, and he isn’t even technically in the race. The rights and wrongs of his letter to an Israeli court have been debated endlessly. However, there is no doubt that it, and the Magill interview, have severely dented his reputation. Norris may be a very charismatic figure but there is the question of his suitability to the office of president. “I lost all respect for him; he’s not dignified,” Marian says.
Would Norris be able to hold his tongue at international events?
I once attended a debate in UL on gay marriage at which Norris spoke. A priest speaking in the debate made a stupid remark on people marrying their pets, which he felt was the next step from gay marriage. Norris whispered an extremely funny and crude aside which had us rolling in the aisles. But can we really have someone who talks before they think as President?
Martin McGuinness has already answered the question everyone was asking as he entered the campaign. He would be willing to shake hands with the Queen of England. McGuinness has taken a huge risk in leaving his post as Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland to run for president and it’s clear he’s in to win. Of all the candidates he has received the roughest ride from the media. Last Monday’s Frontline was dedicated almost solely to the legitimacy of his candidacy and Gay Byrne spoke out against him just last night on Midweek. It could be argued that it is justified given his IRA past, but as we can see from the other candidates, none have exactly squeaky clean records. The media grilling is only serving to enhance sympathy for McGuinness among the younger generation especially, many of whom see him as persecuted for an IRA past they can’t remember. A poll conducted by RTE shows him at No. 1.
“The President is a figurehead and it’s surprising how nasty the contest has gotten,” says Caroline Smith, a Cork woman in her fifties. “Someone like Paddy Hillery, he was quiet and discreet. Mary Davis is quiet as well. Her or Michael D Higgins. I support Sinn Fein so I’ll probably be voting for Martin McGuinness.” Interestingly, it’s the two “celebrity” candidates, Mary Davis and Sean Gallagher, who have been the quietest and the most focused on their own campaign.
Marian also sees it hard to look beyond McGuinness. “He stands out and he will represent a united Ireland. A lot of people will have trouble with his past, though.”
This Presidential campaign has been one of the bitterest in Irish history and it’s hard to escape the feeling that the nastiness is just beginning. Most tellingly though, the choice of a Thursday polling day may preclude many students- including myself- from voting. The candidates don’t appeal to young people and it’s clear that the election will probably be decided by an older demographic.
“A lot of people won’t vote, they don’t know who to vote for,” Marian says. Damien Byrnes, 24, agrees. “I’m not even registered so my opinion doesn’t count for much. I don’t care to be honest.” And who can blame him? It’s hard for an ordinary person to get wound up about who’ll smile and wave for Ireland next.