Fr Kevin Hegarty
THE Presidential election is now drawing to a close and I sense that most people will draw a collective sigh of relief. It has been a tortuous campaign, sometimes chaotic and frequently cruel, as the candidates have wilted under media scrutiny of their lives. When it is all over, some of them will require much healing of body, mind and spirit.
The latest opinion polls indicate that the contest is now a two way one between Seán Gallagher and Michael D Higgins, with Gallagher in the ascendant. Of the remainder only Martin McGuinness can be relatively happy with his projected vote. He is a substantial politician but he must have found his foray into southern politics grueling and revealing. In the eyes of the electorate, Sinn Féin has still much to explain and account for in terms of its links to the IRA.
According to the opinion polls, the campaigns of Mary Davis, David Norris, Dana and Gay Mitchell have foundered.
Mary Davis was initially seen as a serious contender to continue the female domination of Áras an Uachtaráin, but her campaign has been lacklustre. She failed to articulate a vision for the presidency that caught the public imagination, and her main achievement to date remains as organiser of the memorable Special Olympics, held in Ireland in 2003. That was eight years ago, a long, long time in politics, and voters have short memories for positive achievements.
Given the current distrust of state boards, her occupancy of positions on several of them did her no favours. What could once be represented as an example of practical patriotism is now embedded in the public consciousness as a source of personal gain. She has also proved deficient in her knowledge of the constitutional role of the President, and when under questioning by Pat Kenny, she said one might refuse to sign a Government finance bill if it imposed severe social welfare cuts. Michael D Higgins grandly informed her that the constitution does not permit the President to refuse to sign such bills
David Norris is an experienced politician of over 20 years standing. He was, however, accustomed only to the rarefied electorate of Trinity graduates. He never shook off all the effects of his campaign on the age of consent expressed in 2002, and his pleas for clemency for his former partner after he was convicted for a sexual offence by an Israeli court came back to haunt him.
His campaign often seemed in danger of implosion and for me one of the enduring images of the election is of him on television in the middle of a rant about his vision for a new Ireland to a small audience of women on a Dublin street, who seemed anxious to pass him by. It was sad to see someone who has valiantly championed human rights. a person of great charm, vitality and linguistic flair, so reduced.
Dana entered the contest late and to my surprise won a nomination from the county councils. I should not have been surprised as many councillors are of a vintage to remember when she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970, and became the winsome darling of Ireland. Affable and personable, she is associated with the promotion of a fundamentalist Catholic agenda not likely to gain much traction in the wake of scandals that have engulfed the church. Her canvass has been tampered by revelations of a nasty family conflict that entered the public arena. It descended into sad farce when her husband claimed that a tyre blow-out was evidence of a plot to kill her. Tyre experts quickly offered a more rational explanation.
If there was a prize for most forlorn candidate in the election I believe that Gay Mitchell would win it by some distance. It seemed some months ago that Fine Gael would win the Presidency for the first time. The party is now the biggest in the Republic and the Government it leads is enjoying a honeymoon of fairy-tale proportions. Mitchell is an able politician and a renowned vote-getter in Dublin. He is highly regarded in Brussels as an MEP but in this election his touch seems to have deserted him. He is suffering from a severe charisma deficit and Fine Gael TD’s and Senators who supported him for the nomination against Pat Cox and Mairead McGuinness have been unable to transmit their enthusiasm, even to loyal Fine Gael voters.
Michael D Higgins has run a solid campaign. Gone is the radical of the past and in its place is an avuncular grandfather figure. Eschewing his old left wing rhetoric he has become, at last, an establishment man. In the 1980s, in the midst of a Labour Party crisis, Higgins went to observe the conflict in Nicaragua, drawing from Frank Cluskey the memorable comment: ‘typical of Michael D, having to choose between saving the Labour Party and saving the world, he always chooses the easier option’.
Until the last fortnight it seemed he was coasting to victory, but now Seán Gallagher has burst from the pack and is, it seems, headed for success. He has used his minor celebrity status as a panelist on the Dragon’s Den to great effect. He got rid of the Fianna Fáil jersey before it became a badge of dishonour, yet Fianna Fáilers still love him. His relentless message of positivity has struck a chord, and to me, he sometimes sounds like an earnest young curate, talking about community spirit in a parish riven by ancient factions - or even an American cheerleader with a Celtic veneer. Questions hang in the air about his business dealings but two days before the election, he is the one to beat.