If you’re explaining, you’re losing: the presidential campaign of 2011
Deaglán de Bréadún
What are your stand-out memories of the presidential election?
From today’s Irish Times:
IF THE sequence of events in the presidential election campaign was submitted as a storyline for a TV soap opera, it would have been rejected as implausible.
Virtually every moment was spiced with drama. The first major shock was the resignation of key members of the David Norris campaign team when it emerged that he had written to the Israeli courts on behalf of a former partner who was accused of the statutory rape of a teenage Palestinian boy.
Senator Norris had neglected to inform his election workers of this episode and their departure precipitated his decision to exit the contest. He did so in the full glare of the cameras and with his trademark literary flourish, quoting Samuel Beckett’s words: “Fail again, fail better.” It would have been more accurate to quote Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I’ll be back.”
Fianna Fáil was busy generating a mini-drama of its own. After the near-death experience of the general election, the party was reluctant to be brought before the electorate for a second drubbing.
Gay Byrne had surfaced as a possible “celebrity candidate”. Still immensely popular with the public, he would surely have had a very strong chance of becoming the next tenant at Áras an Uachtaráin. At the very least, he would deny the prize to the Coalition parties. But where previous Fianna Fáil chiefs would have taken soundings and ascertained in advance whether Byrne was serious about running, party leader Micheál Martin made an approach which was publicly turned down, leaving him with substantial egg on his face.
Sinn Féin was also slow to enter the race. When it became clear that their opposition rivals were sitting this one out, Gerry Adams and company made their move. After intense speculation, it was announced that Martin McGuinness would take a sabbatical from his post as the North’s deputy first minister to make a run for “the Park”.
Labour held a convention and, with the minimum of fuss, chose party icon and veteran campaigner Michael D Higgins.
Things are always more complicated in Fine Gael. Senior figures in the leadership wanted ex-president of the European Parliament Pat Cox, but the prospect of a former member of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats as their candidate was a major “turn-off” for other elements in the party.
They opted instead for “one of their own”, Dublin MEP Gay Mitchell. The look on Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s face, when the result of the internal party vote was announced, suggested he wasn’t at all keen on the idea.
The Norris withdrawal meant the only Independent candidates at that stage were Mary Davis and Seán Gallagher. Davis had quite a high profile as main organiser of the Special Olympics events of 2003. And no one was paying much attention to Gallagher.
The closing date for nominations was looming when, out of nowhere, Dana Rosemary Scallon emerged as an Independent candidate. She had run before, in 1997, securing 14 per cent of first preferences.
When an opinion poll showed Norris still a popular choice, the lure of high office for the Senator proved too much and he re-entered the fray. However, he failed narrowly to secure the required 20 nominations from Oireachtas members and then appealed to the county councils.
In a deft move, Michael D Higgins publicly urged Labour members of Dublin City Council to clear the way for the Norris nomination, which was approved at the last minute in a dramatic campaign moment.
There were surreal elements to the Dana candidacy. Newspapers and websites reported on transcripts of Iowa court proceedings in which family members accused her of concealing her dual Irish and US citizenship from the electorate in 1997. Dana responded by saying she had become a US citizen in 1999.
In a sensational intervention towards the end of the Prime Time presidential debate on October 12th, Dana read a statement saying “vile and false” allegations were about to be made against a member of her family.
A week later she claimed a tyre blowout which occurred during her campaign travels might have been a murder attempt. A Garda investigation found no evidence of criminal damage.
Davis may have appeared initially like a combination of Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. But she came in for a virtual tidal wave of bad publicity due to her membership of a multiplicity of boards and she never managed to shake off the image of “Queen of the Quangoes”.
Martin McGuinness’s candidacy aroused the ire of many who had remained quiescent even when Gerry Adams moved south of the Border in the general election. But Adams was always seen as more of a strategist whereas McGuinness ticked all the boxes as an IRA man straight from central casting.
McGuinness’s claim that he had ceased to be a member of the IRA in 1974 was greeted with near-universal disbelief, which culminated in Vincent Browne displaying a pile of books containing assertions to the contrary during the TV3 debate.
The attack on McGuinness’s credibility was spearheaded by Gay Mitchell. But the Fine Gael contender got little thanks for his efforts and continued to make a poor showing in the opinion polls. His aggressive campaign style simply didn’t work in the context of the presidency.
The calm, conciliatory approach embraced by Higgins and Gallagher was proving much more effective. Indeed, poll after poll was putting the latter way out in front and it seemed nothing could block his path to the Áras.
The critics were sniping that Gallagher had risen without trace, but as the campaign came to a close his business affairs and links with Fianna Fáil were being subjected to forensic examination.
The high point – or from Gallagher’s viewpoint, very much the low point – came in the course of last Monday’s debate among the candidates on RTÉ’s the Frontline. McGuinness carried out a devastating political ambush against his Independent rival.
Gallagher, caught on the back foot, conceded that he might have delivered a €5,000 donation, from a man he described as a convicted fuel smuggler, to Fianna Fáil HQ three years earlier as part of a fundraiser involving then-taoiseach Brian Cowen.
The studio audience erupted in laughter at Gallagher’s attempts to explain himself, particularly when he referred to an “envelope”, thereby reviving the spectre of the FF tent at the Galway races and the “brown-envelope” culture that has been associated with the party in recent decades.
Gallagher tried to talk his way out of his predicament the following day. But his efforts only confirmed the old political adage that, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing”. A classic case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Looking back on the campaign, it indisputably provided great entertainment but, like most political contests, tended to generate more heat than light.
But the presidential election of 2011 will be spoken of for many years to come and will probably enter the annals as an illustration of the power of TV to make and break political careers.