THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT 2011
Theodore White’s book on the 1960 election of JFK has become, rightly, a classic of political reporting . In what was a watershed election, his book changed the way U.S. politics and elections were regarded. It chronicled the changing pattern of society in the USA 50 years ago, including the way in which television had emerged as a major factor in informing and influencing public opinion..
We have just had a presidential election in Ireland, one which saw Michael D. Higgins, the veteran Labour Party politician, elected as Ireland’s eighth President, with the aid of TV. The election came towards the end of what has been a tumultuous year in Irish politics, with the previous government dumped unceremoniously out in February. This was the first chance the electorate had to vent its feelings since, albeit for what is officially a largely ceremonial and non-political office.
The results and those of two constitutional referendums held simultaneously are being pored over by commentators and public alike after the most extraordinary presidential election campaign Ireland has witnessed. “Michael D.”, an intellectual from the left wing of the Labour party, ran a consistently low key and non-controversial campaign and was always first or second in the opinion polls, which otherwise showed widely variable levels of support for his six opponents. Even when he slipped behind as polling day approached, his overall popularity ensured that, under our PR system, where second and third preferences can count, he would be there at the finish. In fact he won easily with almost 40% as his chief rival, independent Sean Gallagher, self – destructed on national TV and radio just three days before the vote. Shades of 1960.
The other candidates had fallen by the wayside well before. Most spectacular was the failure of Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell, who polled a miserable 6.4%. Fine Gael, as the largest party at 36% in the polls, had had high hopes of victory, but from the outset, Mitchell, a decent but abrasive politician, failed to make an impact. Scoop Jackson’s abortive candidacies in the 1970s come to mind.
Dana, Eurovision winner in 1970, was never going to be a serious contender, and the revelation that she had acquired US citizenship a number of years ago did not help. Mary Davis, another independent candidate, polled well initially in an anti -establishment atmosphere, but foundered when her presence (and earnings) on a number of State Boards were publicised, leading her to be dubbed the “Quango Queen”. Davis and Dana each polled less than 3%.
The colourful gay Senator, David Norris, had briefly led the polls as the campaign opened. However, his always controversial campaign was dealt a mortal blow by the revelation that he had written to the Israeli courts pleading for clemency for a former lover – and pro-Palestinian activist – convicted of statutory rape of a 15 year old boy. Norris left, then re-entered the race, garnering sympathy by his efforts to secure, as an independent, a place on the ballot paper under Ireland’s complicated and restrictive selection procedures. Public support, however, stopped at ensuring he got on the ballot and he received just 6.2%.
Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s very high profile candidate, had entered the race with a definite agenda. This was not to win but to maximise his party’s support as part of a medium term strategy to displace discredited Fianna Fail as the major republican party, akin to the way they had brushed aside the SDLP in Northern Ireland. While he increased Sinn Fein’s share of the vote by almost 40% to 13.7%, there was considerable consumer resistance to McGuinness’ previous record and reputation and frank disbelief at his claim to have quit the IRA in the mid-1970s. Sinn Fein clearly has some way still to travel.
McGuinness did, however, succeed in ambushing, live on TV, the surprise pre-election frontrunner, independent Sean Gallagher. Gallagher, a former member of Fianna Fail, with an existing media profile, had come from nowhere during the campaign to enter the final week with a commanding lead in the opinion polls (40% to 25%). His appeal had in part derived from the prevailing strong anti-political party mood and on the perception that his active involvement with Fianna Fail had been slight. However, during the last TV debate, three days before the vote, confronted by a McGuinness allegation that he had been chief organiser for a $7000 a plate Fianna Fail fund raising dinner, Gallagher first equivocated and then contradicted himself.
The truth as it emerged was somewhat less dramatic but certainly showed Gallagher to have been very much politically involved with Fianna Fail. This was compounded by unconvincing responses to separate technical questions on transactions in some of his companies’ accounts. A professional politician might have winged it. Gallagher did not. It was enough to burst the Gallagher bubble and his support ebbed rapidly. In the event, he finished a creditable second with 28.5%.
Conclusions are already being drawn, not necessarily all correct. What IS beyond doubt is that the electorate is volatile, subject to rapid mood swings and prepared to punish on a whim. This was further emphasised by the close last minute defeat of a government sponsored referendum to establish political tribunals of enquiry. The election of Michael D. does not demonstrate a shift to the left, more that he was the one where positives most outweighed negatives. And, without Gallagher’s TV debacle, he would probably not have won.
Clearly Fine Gael did very badly, and its candidate flopped also in the day’s separate by election. Yet whatever about the candidate’s shortcomings, the party still has to grasp that the last general election was not so much won by Fine Gael as lost by Fianna Fail, and that it must keep working hard, and in touch with the grassroots, to cement its first place position. With a tough budget pending this could prove difficult, particularly with Sinn Fein and the assorted left yapping at the government’s heels.
What of Fianna Fail? Arguably Sean Gallagher could be seen as a surrogate Fianna Fail candidate and the aggregate of his and McGuinness’ vote actually comes close to that secured by Fianna Fail in 2007. Sinn Fein failed to make much progress in its bid to supplant Fianna Fail nationally, while in the separate by-election the Fianna Fail candidate polled surprisingly well. The jury on the “republican party” remains out.
A final point. All the candidates were subjected to unprecedented media scrutiny, pressures and demands for commitments from lobbies. Some were asked at one point whether they would use the Presidential residence to house people rendered temporarily homeless when their apartment complex was vacated for fire safety reasons. Other equally inappropriate issues were raised with the hapless candidates. Several were asked whether, if elected, they would help empty commodes when officially visiting hospitals. These questions were put, in all seriousness, to candidates running for election to be Ireland’s Head of State. Michael D, in his response, restored some perspective (and gained some plaudits) when he stated he would do what the Irish President was expected to do. He will maintain the dignity of the office. Of that we can be sure.