A Peculiar Pudding– the Contest for the Irish Presidency

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in the Sunday Island on October 29, 2011


Brendan Behan’s mother, Kathleen, once worked in a domestic capacity for WB Yeats, poet, Nobel laureate and Irish senator. The great man was somewhat absent-minded. When Kathleen brought some creamed parsnips to the table, he took a mouthful without looking up from his book and intoned sonorously: ” THIS is a verrrrry peculiar pudding”.


The 2011 contest for Áras an Uachtaráin, the Irish presidency, is a very peculiar pudding. Mary MacAleese finishes her stint as Irish president ending a period when it seemed to be a woman’s job. She succeeded Mary Robinson who, through her distinguished international career in human rights, transformed the office from a mainly ceremonial one to one which could subtly change Irish society. When MacAleese won the presidency in 1997, all her rivals but one were women. In 2004 she stood unopposed.


The election for the ninth president is a strange affair.


Contenders have come and gone and come back again. At one time there was speculation that Bob Geldof would put himself forward. In one of his more printable comments the ex-Boomtown Rat spoke of boom and bust. “The overwhelming feeling I have is one of sadness for the country – and of anger for the incompetence beyond measure, the sheer stupidity and the clear venality which has Ireland where it is now”. Saint Bob early decided it was not worth running.


The talk show host Gay Byrne, Ireland’s Oprah Winfrey, was touted as a potential candidate for Fianna Fáil, the party that has dominated political life in Ireland for most of the life of the Republic. However, Byrne declined to be used and Fianna Fáil put forward no candidate. “Fianna Fáil are convinced no matter who they put up will be unelectable, so they’re giving me their support”.


David Norris


A front runner at one point was Senator David Norris, an outspoken campaigner for gay rights. A poll in January 2011 showed that Norris was by far the most popular choice for President with more than double the support of any of the other potential candidates. He also won the support of many politicians. This is a surprising demonstration of tolerance for homosexuality for Ireland. However, Norris withdrew his candidacy on 2 August because of controversy about ill-judged remarks he had made in the past and his support for his former partner, Ezra Nawi, who was then facing criminal charges in Israel for sex with a minor.


Now he’s back in the race after securing the support of Dublin City council for his nomination. His nomination was not without problems. Independent councillor Damien O’Farrell said “I am not prepared to turn a blind eye to matters of child sexual abuse”. Dr Bill Tormey of Fine Gael said the Senator was a “national treasure” but Áras an Uachtaráin was not the place for him because of his views on pederasty and the age of consent.


Michael D Higgins


As I write, the front-runner is the Labour Party candidate, Michael D Higgins, a beaming little leprechaun, a poet who has been minister of culture. He has been endorsed by Martin Sheen (who incidentally was himself urged to run). Sheen, known for pretending to be a president in The West Wing, became friends with Higgins when Sheen was studying English Literature, Philosophy and Oceanography at Galway University.


Gay Mitchell


Please do not think that Ireland is overrun with homosexuals. “Gay” is short for “Gabriel” and Gay Mitchell is the Fine Gael candidate. He has not been coming across well to the voters. What he thinks is toughness comes across as snarkiness. One of his quirkier notions is that Ireland would join the Commonwealth if Britain agreed to a united Ireland. Mr Mitchell has seen a huge drop in support and he would appear to be out of the race unless something strange or wonderful happens. He is only getting 21 per cent of even the Fine Gael vote –most of his own prefer Higgins. If Mr Mitchell only wins nine per cent on polling day it will be a disaster for Fine Gael after this year’s general election triumph.


Mary Davis


At the last reckoning Special Olympics boss Mary Davis, was on 12 per cent, precisely the same level of support as she had in July. Her support is equally spread across the regions but is higher among the older voters than among younger. There has been a lot of focus on all the candidates’ income and everyone is flashing bank statements and tax returns. Davis’s husband, a PR man, angrily denied that his paid work for a charity represented any conflict of interest. Asked to explain why he didn’t believe it was a conflict he said: “Because it isn’t. No is the answer.”


Sean Gallagher


Businessman Seán Gallagher has been in second place in the polls. He denied distancing himself from Fianna Fáil, rejecting accusations that he embraced his Fianna Fail past but denied the Fianna Fail present. On his own website he says: “Seán has been a sporadic member of Fianna Fáil over many years”.


Dana Rosemary Scallon


Ms Scallon is at six per cent nationally. She has twice as much support among women voters than among men. Ms Scallon vowed to be the “people’s president” and to uphold the Irish Constitution if elected. However, a little bit of unconstitutionality has emerged – she is a US citizen and failed to declare this when she ran for president in 1997. She was elected to the European Parliament in 1999 and took a very conservative stance on personal liberty issues, such as abortion.


Rosemary Scallon (born Rosemary Brown in 1951 in Derry) achieved international fame as Dana, when she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970 with the song All Kinds of Everything. She settled in Birmingham Alabama and in 1985, with family members, founded a religious music company called Heart Beat LLC. Between 1996 and 2005, the company had a turnover of more than $7.6 million.


There is a lot of family dirt being thrown around. Squabbles over money have escalated into nastier accusations. All kinds of everything indeed! Dana’s brother, John Brown, is a member of her current election team. Dana’s sister, Susan, has over the years accused Brown of sexually molesting her (Susan’s) daughter and is repeating the allegations now.


Martin McGuinness


In many ways the most interesting candidate is Martin McGuinness, who has given up his ministerial post in the Stormont government in Belfast to run in the Republic’s presidential election. He claims that he left the IRA in 1974 but others dispute this. Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe snarked at McGuinness’s commitment to draw the average industrial wage if elected. “Why would you need your salary when you have the proceeds of the Northern Bank at your disposal,” Mr Kehoe said. The IRA stole £26.5 million (€31.35 million) from the Northern Bank in 2004. The former Conservative minister, Lord Tebbit, who, along with Margaret Thatcher, was almost killed by the Provisional IRA, has said Martin McGuinness should confess his crimes. Tom Clonan, former Irish Army officer and now a commentator on security matters, writes: “All Army officers, myself included, who served in the Defence Forces during the Troubles will be puzzled at McGuinness’s claim that he left the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s. The Defence Forces/Garda Síochána intelligence brief – up to the year 2000 – clearly indicates that this is not the case.”


My friend, the Reverend Harold Good (Good by name and good by nature) is not naive about the horrors of terrorism, but counts McGuinness as a friend following their partnership in the Northern Ireland peace process. Harold told me: “If elected he would be a circumspect, respectful and statesmanlike President. But if elected he would leave a gap in our Stormont administration where he is doing a very good job. The media and his opponents are indeed focussing on his past rather than his present. However, as I understand it … he and Sinn Fein see this as an opportunity to ask the Irish electorate to give a strong endorsement to the road they have taken … as distinct from the ‘dissidents’ . They feel a strong vote, whatever the outcome, will send this message.”


McGuinness made a less than helpful intervention in Sri Lankan affairs when he came here in 2006 and talked with LTTE leaders. He may have meant well but was over-optimistic in seeing parallels with the Irish situation. In Ireland, whatever the apparent intransigence, most parties were exhausted enough to give up conflict. He said: I am convinced that there is the will on both sides to find a resolution but that increasing conflict is making the peace efforts more and more difficult. My core message was that both sides need to act decisively to prevent the downward spiral into all out conflict. The reality is that, just as in Ireland, there can be no military victory and that the only alternative to endless conflict is dialogue, negotiations and accommodation”. He was clearly mistaken.


McGuiness criticized the European Union for banning the Tamil Tigers as a Terrorist Organization. He said that “it was a huge mistake for EU leaders to demonize the LTTE and the political leaders of the Tamil people.” We knew well enough that some were demons.