When Irish voters go to the polls on October 17 and elect the country?s next president, they will make a decision that will affect the direction the country takes over the next two decades. The office of the presidency in Ireland is largely ceremonial; the president is the head of state and does not possess strong legislative powers. Nonetheless, recent history shows that the Irish people?s choice of president indicates something significant about the prevailing social and cultural attitudes in the country?what Ireland itself represents.
This year?s election is truly an open race. Fluctuating poll numbers show that many people have yet to make up their minds. Furthermore, Ireland?s system of proportional representation features an instant runoff of transferable votes (if a voter?s first preference is eliminated from the race, his or her second preference will receive the vote). Transfers can make a huge difference; in a first-past-the-post system, Mary Robinson would not have won the 1990 election.
Robinson brought the presidency to the forefront of Irish politics. At the dawn of a new decade, and with Europe buzzing from the ?fall of the wall? in 1989, the selection of Robinson?a human rights lawyer and the country?s first female president, and first elected with Labour Party support?signaled a step toward a more open, pluralistic society, and away from traditional conservative social attitudes. The Catholic Church?s grip on Irish politics was loosening. During her seven-year term Ireland finally removed the law banning homosexual acts between men, legalized divorce, and began the process of properly investigating allegations of child abuse perpetrated by members of the Church. Robinson was not personally responsible any of these legislative changes, but her election made clear a liberal turn in Irish society.
In 1997, when Robinson resigned to take up the role of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Irish voters elected Mary McAleese, a more socially conservative politician than Robinson but the first president of the Irish republic born in Northern Ireland?again, a symbolically important decision. By 1997 the Northern Irish peace process was well underway, but it was by no means a fait accompli. The election of McAleese sent a signal that Ireland was ready to move on to peace. The ?Good Friday? Agreement, which kept Northern Ireland a part of the UK but enabled cross-border cooperation, was approved in 1998 by a referendum on both sides of the border and remains in place today.
Now that McAleese has fulfilled her two terms, Ireland once again faces an election of profound symbolic importance. There are a record seven candidates, representing a number of directions Ireland might take: Sinn Féin?s Martin McGuinness, independent Senator David Norris, Labour?s Michael D. Higgins, Fine Gael?s Gay Mitchell, and the independents Séan Gallagher, Mary Davis, and Dana Rosemary Scallon. At present only Gay Mitchell and Dana Rosemary Scallon are really struggling for support; the other candidates are still in the race.
The most controversial candidate is Martin McGuinness, currently the deputy first minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly. A victory for McGuinness, an admitted former IRA member, would be a remarkable achievement for Sinn Féin, which until recent times was seen as merely the political mouthpiece of the IRA. Sinn Féin clearly aims to eventually take the position in Irish politics previously occupied by Fianna Fáil.
Center-right in terms of fiscal policy, Fianna Fáil is traditionally Ireland?s largest political party. Like Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil has historical roots in militant Irish nationalism (it was formed in the 1930s by ex-militants of the Easter Rising of 1916 who had, by the 1930s, realized that they could pursue their nationalist goals in the political process). But Fianna Fáil?s share of the vote shrank to such an extent in February parliamentary elections that it is not even running an official candidate for the presidency. The reason for this drop in support was clear. In September 2008 the Fianna Fáil?led government issued a blanket guarantee to Irish banks, effectively nationalizing the banks? huge debts. Ireland?s economy collapsed and its unemployment rate has exploded to 14 percent, leading to an ?85 billion ?bailout? by the EU and IMF in November 2010.
Those on the center-left in Ireland hoped that the 2011 parliamentary election would provide an opportunity for the Labour Party, traditionally Ireland?s third party behind the center-right Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, to make gains. Labour did end up winning more seats (thirty-seven) than at any time in its history, but this was dwarfed by the success of Fine Gael, which won seventy-six seats, also its best ever result. The resulting coalition between Fine Gael and Labour has largely steered the same course of austerity as the previous government. With Labour in power and Fianna Fáil in disarray, there may be a gap in the opposition for Sinn Féin to increase its share of the vote. Winning the presidency would be a big step in that direction.
McGuinness has performed admirable work supporting the peace process in Northern Ireland and has condemned the continued use of violence by dissident republicans. He has also proven to be an able deputy first minister and, so far, has not made any serious missteps in his campaign. His support for a united Ireland in the near future and his opposition to the terms of the EU and IMF bailout may play well with the electorate in Ireland.
However, two huge doubts about McGuinness and Sinn Féin remain. The first and most controversial is the legacy of the IRA?s terror campaign, which took place from the late 1960s to 1990s. The IRA?s activities during this period included the bombing of property (sometimes with, and sometimes without, prior warning), armed robbery, the murder of civilians, and the horrifying use of a proto-suicide bomb tactic?the ?human bomb.? In 1990 IRA members strapped a huge bomb onto a Catholic man, Patsy Gillespie, who worked as a cook for the British Army, and then forced him against his will to drive to an army checkpoint where the bomb was detonated by radio control, killing him and five British soldiers. McGuinness claims he left the IRA in 1974, but most historians dispute this; Ed Moloney recently stated that it is likely that he remained active until at least the 1980s. Concern about his possible role in later IRA activities has yet to manifest itself in the polls, but it may end up deterring some voters. If he is elected, McGuinness would certainly not be the first head of state with a history of political violence, but the uncertainty surrounding his exact role in the IRA means that questions on the issue will not go away.
Second, while it now campaigns as a party of the left, Sinn Féin?s roots are ultimately on the right, in nationalism and to some extent Roman Catholicism. For instance, the party?s anti-abortion stance attracted attention when a new party, the Christian Solidarity Party (CSP), was formed in early 2011. The CSP told its supporters to allocate their transferable votes to Sinn Féin, since every other Irish political party was pursuing a ?European secular agenda.?
With these issues in mind, it is difficult to know how electable McGuinness really is. Similarly, it is difficult to judge how much of an impact holding the presidency would have on Sinn Féin?s overall popularity. However, it is likely to be a positive one and could lend the party international legitimacy.
Another leading candidate is Senator David Norris, whose campaign has also weathered controversy. Norris is an English professor by trade?a charismatic scholar of James Joyce at Trinity College Dublin?and the first openly gay presidential candidate in Ireland?s history. During his campaign Norris has had to deal with allegations that he acted inappropriately when, in the 1990s, he used official Irish Senate notepaper to appeal for clemency to the Israeli authorities on behalf of his former partner Ezra Nawi, who had been convicted in Israel of the statutory rape of a fifteen-year-old boy. The controversy does not seem to have derailed his campaign; if elected, Norris would send a strong message that, despite the economic crisis and high unemployment rate, the people of Ireland want to continue along a path of pluralism and social liberalism.
Labour?s Michael D. Higgins is also doing well in the polls. Higgins has been a member of the Irish Parliament since 1981, and was the minister for arts and culture in the Irish government from 1993 to 1997. He has a track record of promoting human rights in Ireland and around the globe. Higgins voted against the 2008 bank guarantee that helped create the conditions for the current financial crisis in Ireland. But in a recent debate he admitted that as president he could not intervene in fiscal affairs even if he strongly disagreed with the approach of the government, so his 2008 vote may count for little in this election. However, Higgins would be a socially liberal choice for voters, though less radically so than Norris, and one free of controversy.
The independent candidate, Mary Davis, a disability-rights campaigner who served as CEO of the organizing committee of the 2003 Special Olympic Games, has attracted a growing amount of support from across the political spectrum over the last few weeks. Voters appear to find Davis likeable, and if her current momentum continues, she cannot be ruled out.
The other three candidates have fallen behind. Even though Fine Gael won the most seats in the 2011 general election and now governs in coalition with Labour, the campaign of Gay Mitchell has failed to catch fire. The lack of imagination shown so far in his campaign, combined with voters’ weariness of the current government?s policies, means that he appears to be out of the race. Similarly, Dana Rosemary Scallon, an independent socially conservative candidate, currently trails in last place in most polls and has no real chance of winning. The other independent candidate, Séan Gallagher, a businessman with links to the highly unpopular former governing party Fianna Fáil, has so far been able to maintain a respectable level of core support, but it is unlikely that it will be enough for him to prevail.
In a poll conducted by the Irish state television channel RTÉ in late September, McGuinness and Norris were the clear frontrunners. A more recent poll, conducted on October 2, showed Higgins in the lead with 27 percent, Norris with 20 percent, Gallagher with 13 percent, Davis with 12 percent, McGuinness with 11 percent, Mitchell with 10 percent, and Scallon with 7 percent. Other polls show continuing support for McGuinness and Norris, but they will both struggle to attract transfers from other candidates, which means that Higgins, Gallagher, and even Davis cannot be ruled out. Next week the country will vote, and perhaps say something about Ireland?s direction in the coming years.