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Going to the Park

October 13, 2011

The current irish Presidential election campaign is proving more engaging than most previous contests, and it might also provide food for thought for those of us in Scotland who would prefer Republic to Monarchy after Independence.

When I was a child, I believed that the Irish Presidency was an institution invented to keep Eamon De Valera in the spotlight after he had ‘retired from active politics’. Mature reflection suggests that might not have been as childish a misconception as you might think. Either way, the Presidency, largely a ceremonial position, has gradually changed, in much the same way as Ireland has – not always willingly, and occasionally in grand lurches.

It became a necessity to choose a Head of State when Ireland eventually extricated itself from the British Empire and established a new constitution in 1937, and proclaimed a Republic in 1949. The fact that the formal residence of the President was to be the previous ViceRegal Lodge reflected the largely ceremonial duties of the President.

However, as you might expect, there was a linguistic conundrum involved in the constitutional arrangements. The President’s official title is An Uachtarain na h’Eireann – The President of Ireland – reflecting the claim to 32 counties. Although times have changed, UK communiques were formerly always careful to refer to the President of the Irish Republic, or The Irish President.

Be that as it may, for the first four decades or so of its existence, the position was filled, predictably, by loyal and retired political servants, generally of a Fianna Fail background, who smiled, shook hands, and reviewed the troops.

Candidates for election have to be nominated by at least 20 members of the Oireachtas (the Dail and the upper house – the Seanad) or by four county councils. Often in the twentieth century there was considerable arm twisting by the politicians to convince a candidate to stand, and, once elected, to remain for a second 7 year term. Not surprisingly, then, on several occasions the election has been uncontested as a result of some cosy negotiations between the various parties.

Then, in 1976, Cearbhall o Dalaigh resigned after a constitutional row with the government of the day, and in particular the defence minister, who had called him a ‘thundering disgrace’. He was the first President not to have had a link, direct or indirect, with the war of Independence, and there was a feeling that perhaps times were changing for the role of President. His successor, Patrick Hillery was a former EU Commissioner and long time Fianna Fail stalwart. Though initially reluctant to take on the role, he grew into the job and was widely revered as a decent man who steadied the constitutional ship.

After his 14 year term, there was a feeling, perhaps, that the post had retreated to its former low profile position. Lined up for successor was another Fianna Fail veteran, Brian Lenihan; it seemed a shoe in, as they say. He was popular in the country, well connected politically and, in addition, was known to be battling illness. If familiarity didn’t usher him in to the Aras, surely he would garner the sympathy vote.

But it didn’t turn out like that. The Labour party, never a major player in Irish politics, unless as part of a coalition, decided to propose Mary Robinson as their candidate. This was quite a departure – she was female, only in her forties, TCD and Harvard educated, and left wing in many social policy areas, particularly marital breakdown and women’s health. Given the history of the Presidency, her candidacy always looked like a token attempt to raise important issues, but no more than that.

Then Fianna Fail, under the stewardship of Charlie Haughey, and their candidate, lost the plot. Evidence came up that Lenihan had possibly interfered with constitutional affairs by contacting the President over a dissolution of the Dail some years previously. As is nearly always the case, the attempt to cover up or dissemble was more damaging than the original offence, and in a staggering departure from ‘normality’, an educated, left leaning, cosmopolitan, female candidate won the Irish Presidency.

It was a genuinely joyful moment in Irish politics and, as hoped, she revolutionised the role of An Uachtarain, reaching out to loyalists, Britain, and the diaspora as no holder of the post had ever before. Though there has been a cult of hagiography around her, there is no doubt that her term of office changed the nature of the post, possibly saving the presidency from a slow death through irrelevance.

Such was her impact that, come the next election, caused when she resigned after 7 years to take up a post as United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, there were no fewer than 4 female candidates. It seemed Robinson’s tenure had changed the way the Presidency is viewed. The 1997 victor, Mary McAleese, the first President to be born in the six counties, has continued to make the role more relevant, not always without controversy, in her 14 year term.

McAleese’s progress, especially in terms of external relations with Britain and neighbourly contacts with unionists in the North, has mirrored both the development of the Peace Process and changes in Irish society.

The line up for the 2011 election, however, poses some interesting questions for an Ireland less sure of itself than it has been for years. The candidates are as follows:
Sean Gallagher: a former Irish Dragon’s Den contestant and entrepreneur, standing as an independent with former Fianna Fail links;
Martin McGuinness: Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister in the six counties, who first came to prominence as Commander of the IRA’s Derry City Brigade in the 1970s;
Dana Rosemary Scallon, former MEP and teenage Eurovision winner;
David Norris: a Senator with a long involvement in public life in the arts and supporting gay rights;
Mary Davis: another independent, describes herself as a social entrepreneur and was involved in the organisation of Ireland’s highly successful Special Olympics;
Gay Mitchell: the candidate promoted by governing party Fine Gael, an MEP, former Lord Mayor of Dublin and failed candidate for party leadership
and Michael D Higgins: the Labour party candidate: former Mayor of Galway, Senator, TD, MInister for the Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, human rights campaigner.

Most of these candidates pose questions of the electorate in relation to where Ireland stands now as a country, its views and attitudes. The polls suggest that Davis is not making much headway. Mitchell, because of his government’s unpopular stance on spending asperity is struggling. Dana, who has a fair constituency in the rural areas following her somewhat fundamentalist right wing views looks like sticking at around 7%.

Sean Gallagher, with high name recognition and good presentation skills, relatively untramelled by previous Fianna Fail links, is going well, but it is the other three candidates who pose the questions that will tell us where stands Ireland now.

David Norris was initially thought to be a strong candidate. Generally well recognised and respected in Ireland, for many he was the newly acceptable face of gay rights in politics in an ever more secular state. His demeanour was generally thought of as presidential. Unfortunately, as his candidacy got under way, he hit trouble. Evidence appeared that he had written letters to an Israeli court on behalf of a former partner who had been charged with statutory rape after having sex with a minor. In the furore surrounding this revelation, he withdrew from the race. He has since rejoined the campaign but a succession of stuttering performances suggest his confidence, and maybe that of the electorate has been shattered. This is a pity, because his very candidacy speaks of a country that has moved on dramatically, and we can’t know how strong a showing he would have made had scandal not scared the voters.

Michael D Higgins, probably at this stage the favourite is at once the traditional presidential candidate, but at the same time a challenge to cosmopolitan Ireland. An avuncular figure, he has an excellent record on literature, the arts and the Irish Language; he set up Bord Scannan na h’Eireann – the Irish Film Board, and TG4 the Irish language TV station; he is a poet, broadcaster and author. His excellent record on human rights around the world speaks of a thoroughly decent man who would not let his country down. His victory would suggest an inclination amongst a people mauled by the Celtic Tiger to look back to their indigenous roots and embrace western Ireland rather than become west Britons, whilst at the same time recovering their generosity of spirit towards poorer parts of the world.

And finally we come to the Republican elephant in the aras race: Martin McGuinness. You can, and the voters do, take two opposed views to his candidacy: he is an IRA man, responsible for murder and mayhem and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the presidency; or: he should be praised for his work on the Peace Process, his bridge building in the six counties, and for his efforts in working with the unionists in the north to improve society and bring jobs; his election would show that Ireland, north and south, was moving on. There is, of course, no ‘right’ view in these choices, which depend on the indivdual’s viewpoint. There is irony aplenty, however.

Many of those who disqualify McGuinness because of his past are those who attacked the IRA in the Troubles for refusing to let go of the past and move on; there is a contradiction in their views if they now cast up his past. Some of the loudest voices decrying his candidacy come from those sections of society who wreaked havoc on thousands of families across Ireland because of their dodgy business dealings. This is not to equate financial shenanigans with the grief caused by the Troubles, but you might think McGuinness has contributed more to rebuilding the society he helped wreck than have the financiers thus far.

Possibly his biggest hindrance, however, is found in the subtle undertones of the Republic’s confusion over the national question. Taking their lead from De Valera, since the foundation of the state, most Irish folk have been happier to pay lip service to the concept of a 32 county republic than to do anything concrete towards bringing it about. During the Troubles, their biggest fear was that the mayhem would spread to the 26 counties. So, while often rather appreciating the fact that there was a fight for unification, they weren’t prepared to pay the social, economic or political price. There is a kind of subliminal guilt about this ‘unfinished business’, which is most often found in the media’s attitude to Sinn Fein, which is generally hostile, irrespective of the party’s political and social agenda. This is mirrored by the attitudes of the major parties in the south who have much to lose if the radical, community based politics of these energetic newcomers take root. There is also an unwillingness to contemplate a ‘ Sinn Fein President’ in 2016 when the centenary of the Easter Rising will be celebrated.

All are agreed that Sinn Fein campaigns well and connects with people. In addition, for an increasing number of voters, the Troubles are an historic rather than an actual memory; they know McGuinness as a Deputy First Minister and Peace Politician – rather than the butcher’s apprentice from the Bogside who took on the British Army. Independent commentators are beginning to suggest that the media’s aggressive attitude towards McGuinness might have the opposite effect to that desired, that he might garner a sympathy vote – which some would consider the ultimate irony. Most are also agreed, however, that the real purpose of mcGuinness’s campaign is to further establish Sinn Fein in mainstream politics in the south. It is easy to point the finger at McGuinness and cry murderer, but that doesn’t really take on the issues or reflect the current situation in an ever changing country. There needs to be a higher level of debate – whoever is to become President.

It could be that the Irish voter is so disillusioned with his politicians that the turnout will be disastrously low; or an electorate, which is far more sophisticated than they are generally given credit for, may choose to see the Presidency as a way of bypassing the parliamentarians and choosing a representative who will encourage a recovery of national spirit.

Will it be the entrepreneur who can conjure up businesses out of nothing, the poet and scholar who will reflect on the country’s illustrious artistic history, or, like many times before, and in many other countries as well, will the election of a former gunman announce that peace is secure, the past has been a source of learning, not resentment, and the new millennium has well and truly started?

Watch this space.

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