I must admit that my interest in the 2018 Irish Presidential Election was primarily one of an amateur psephologist rather than being driven by the politics of the contest or indeed the rather lacklustre candidates. The winner was never in doubt from the moment that the two biggest parties decided to sit out the contest and lined up behind the incumbent, a decision that at least one of those parties may be regretting, in hindsight.
Following the re-election of DeValera in 1966, this was only the second time an incumbent was made to contest an election, but it was a democratic imperative that this election took place, as Michael D Higgins had received a mandate in 2011, only after assuring the electorate that he would be a one term only President, thereby avoiding any questions on his age and fitness for the role.
Compared with the fiery 2011 election, this year’s contest was rather tepid and struggled to capture the interest of the electorate as the record low turnout confirms but that’s not to say that it didn’t produce its fair share of winners and losers.
You cannot deny that gaining over eight hundred thousand endorsements and 56% of the votes is anything but a significant victory. Whether the electorate like or admire the incumbent may be disputed, but he fitted their perception of the Presidential role far better than any of his rivals. Nevertheless one has to question whether his clear victory was a statement of satisfaction with Higgins or a verdict on the alternatives.
Higgins’ vote share was significantly down on all the opinion polls, his reputation for living an extravagant lifestyle at the expense of the taxpayer and being the ‘establishment’s man’ will most likely not feature in the media narrative, but questions on unaudited accounts are unlikely to be forgotten before they are satisfactorily answered. However a win is a win and the Irish political and media establishment delivered the result they wanted.
A fortnight before the vote, businessman Peter Casey could have walked down almost any street in Ireland without being recognised. Anyone who did recognise him probably did so from the television show ‘Dragon’s Den’ and indeed he owed his position in the Presidential race to the generosity of two of his fellow dragons, Seán Gallagher and Gavin Duffy, who refused to seek further council nominations once their place on the ballot was secure. In the days before the vote both Gallagher and Duffy must have questioned that decision as Casey became the focus of attention and the only clear rival to Higgins.
Casey’s surge from under 2% in the polls to over 23% is unprecedented in any Irish election and even if you choose to try and diminish his achievement based on the turnout, as many in the media have tried to do, you cannot deny that his plain speaking, ‘tell it like I see it’ honestly has resonated with over a third of a million Irish voters and it has sent shivers down the spines of the politically correct, self-censoring Irish establishment.
The fact that Leo Varadkar interfered in the election to target one candidate should have received far more attention than it did but the fact that the Taoiseach’s views were shared by many in the media meant that he was never criticised. However the fact that Casey’s vote surged after Varadkar’s unfortunate comments is probably the best criticism that Ireland could have mustered.
As opinion poll support for Ireland’s oldest political party wobbles between 4% and 6% and the party’s rump of TDs face the electorate in the next General Election, Labour badly needed something to cheer them up before their possible demise – and they got it in this election.
Back in 2011, you needed to be pretty eagle-eyed to spot the red rose on the posters of Michael D. Higgins, the only clear sign that he was the party’s candidate. With Labour already being damaged by their coalition with Fine Gael, the tactical decision was made to lower the party affiliation of their candidate and it no doubt helped Higgins become the default choice when Gallagher’s campaign faltered.
By contrast, in this election Labour loudly proclaimed Higgins as their man from the lampposts of Ireland, hoping that his inevitable victory would sprinkle some Presidential fairy-dust on their flagging fortunes. Former leader Joan Burton said as much as the votes were being counted in Dublin West and Higgins huge support compared to that of the Sinn Féin candidate must encourage her in her difficult task of holding a seat in the next election.
There are few more impotent elected public representatives in the World than Irish county councillors, especially after the centralisation of public services and the long-overdue limitations on planning permission. However councillors still have the power to nominate candidates for the Presidential Election and four of the six candidates owed their position on the ballot to this process.
There is no question but that councillors took their responsibility seriously, nominating viable candidates and weeding out those that would have made a circus of this election, or worse still a vanity project for attention seekers. We don’t often have grounds to thank our county councillors but credit where it’s due and there is no question that our selection process works.
Sinn Fein (and especially Mary-Lou McDonald)
Unlike the other parties that had the power to nominate candidates, but chose not to give the electorate a vote, Sinn Fein stepped up and from very early in the process, said they would run a candidate to rival Higgins. However after that things rapidly went downhill and questions must now be asked about the political savvy of the new party leader.
For weeks in advance of her confirmation, everyone knew that Sinn Fein were going to run MEP Liadh Ni Riada, but time was wasted getting her into the field, while posters were being printed and the launch in the shadow of Croke Park looked contrived.
During the contest, Ni Riada hopped from one banana-skin to another; her views on the HPV vaccine had to be reversed, her support for the President wearing the poppy ruffled her support base and the admission that she had taken almost a quarter of a million Euros in expenses as an MEP were all missteps. However her embarrassing revelations on taking the average industrial wage not only damaged her but also showed the nonsense of Sinn Fein’s gimmick politics.
There’s a term, popular in music business, called “the sophomore slump” when an act’s second album fails to live up to the standards and success of their first. Sean Gallagher is the Irish political version of this phenomenon.
In 2011 Gallagher was fresh, his pro-business ‘can do’ attitude temporarily lifted an electorate who were weary from three years of austerity before things came crashing down after a deliberate attack on his connections with Fianna Fáil in the final TV debate.
Gallagher’s re-emergence as a candidate in 2018 took everyone by surprise but his invisibility in the previous seven years was poorly explained, this time his message sounded dated and his campaign struggled to get out of first gear. When he joined in the bully mob against Peter Casey, the die was cast. Falling from 29% of the vote in 2011 to 6% is a clear indication that this was a terrible campaign.
This was never likely to be as engaging an election as 2011 and the result being a foregone conclusion meant that those covering the contest had to desperately seek an angle, however many chose to go beyond that an actively create one.
In an almost hour long podcast with the Irish Independent, Peter Casey spoke about people who refused to accept social housing and in passing mentioned the travelling community, making the perfectly valid point that rather than being a distinct and separate ethnic group, they were in fact as Irish as anyone else but more likely to set-up camp on other people’s property. Within an hour of going online, this passing comment had been quoted out of context, and Casey was portrayed as being ‘anti-traveller’ and ‘racist’ by an Irish media cohort who were clearly out of touch with many who lived outside the Dublin 4 bubble.
I don’t expect the media to simply report on a campaign, but neither do I expect them to deliberately target a candidate for a passing and valid comment. By creating this firestorm the media made Casey the focus of attention rather than the bad guy they wanted to portray. A media which is afraid of people speaking honestly is not fit for purpose.
Fianna Fail (and especially Mícheál Martin)
At last year’s Ard Fheis, Fianna Fail members voted overwhelmingly to have a candidate in this year’s Presidential Election. There was no shortage of potential candidates, as Galway T.D. Eamon O’Cuiv and Senator Mark Daly both publicly expressed interest in running. However, the party leader took it upon himself to ignore the party membership and to support Higgins.
This isn’t the first time that Martin has chosen to ignore the vote of the members, and while his decision for the party not to provide the opposition in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment may have been politically astute and certainly played well with the media, the decision to support Higgins now looks far more suspect.
The supposed reason for not contesting was to save money for the next General Election, but by allowing a vacuum to be created, FF allowed Casey to hoover up support from what would traditionally have been the party’s support base. In the end less than half FF voters turned out to support Higgins and now Martin is facing yet more accusations of turning the party he leads into a group of bandwagon-jumping opportunists, all but indistinguishable from Fine Gael.
Many will spend this long weekend reflecting on where Irish politics and political discourse goes from here.