Presidential race likely to be a fraught affair

Fri, May 27, 2011, 01:00

ANALYSIS:Both parties in the Fine Gael-Labour Government could be heading for internal trouble with the presidential election looming

WHILE LABOUR has at least set a date, June 19th, for what might be a bruising public contest between party stalwarts, confusion seems to reign at the top of Fine Gael about what is happening and not a little resentment has begun to creep in among the rank and file.

The faultless deportment of President Mary McAleese during the recent visits of US president Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth has shone a most favourable light on the Áras, and the field of candidates hoping to replace the incumbent is starting to fill out.

While no one has yet secured a nomination to contest the upcoming election, many have expressed an interest, or are being encouraged to do so, and some have thrown hats into the ring. So far, those who have gone public with their ambition include: Fine Gael MEP Mairéad McGuinness; Special Olympics chief Mary Davis; former European Parliament president Pat Cox; Labour’s Michael D Higgins and Kathleen O’Meara; former Labour Party special adviser and chief executive of children’s charity Barnardos Fergus Finlay; and Dragons’ Den judge Seán Gallagher. Senator David Norris was out of the traps early and yesterday secured the support of another TD, the Independent deputy for Donegal South West Thomas Pringle. Already declared for Norris are Independents Stephen Donnelly, Finian McGrath, Maureen O’Sullivan, Catherine Murphy and Mick Wallace, while Fingal County Council has said it will give him a nomination. His speech at the opening of the Seanad was well received this week.

Others who have flirted with the idea of contesting include Fine Gael MEP Seán Kelly, who positioned himself at the right hand of Barack Obama during the College Green speech.

Speculation occasionally flares in political circles about the intentions of the President’s husband, Dr Martin McAleese, recently appointed as a Taoiseach’s nominee to the Seanad.

Although the office is above politics, the inescapable reality is that the backing of 20 members of the Dáil and Seanad, or the support of four councils, is required by potential candidates in order to be nominated. It’s what the latest entrant into the race, Davis, yesterday described as the “conundrum” of the process of looking for a nomination: “You seek it through political parties, or through the political system and then when you get in the president is an apolitical position.”

A Fine Gael candidate has never won a presidential contest, and so the office has taken on something of the lure of a holy grail for that party. Much speculation has centred on the intentions of former taoiseach John Bruton, although those close to him continue to insist he does not want the office. He clearly enjoys the level of freedom he has to be a commentator in public life, through his role as president of IFSC Ireland. The former EU ambassador to Washington remains vice-president of the Fine Gael party and his brother Richard is now a Minister.

While he may have privately expressed the view that the role should be reformed to allow for extended powers, it seems unlikely that such changes could be put in place in time for him to benefit from them.

The notion that Bruton expects a coronation has gained some credence within the party – with one source deriding him as a “diva” who wanted to be “coaxed”.

Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan spoke frankly this week when he said Bruton “has always said that he hasn’t huge enthusiasm to be President of Ireland”.

However, Bruton has come under pressure to reconsider and kicked to touch quite uncomfortably in a recent radio encounter. He has yet to firmly close the door on the notion.

Fianna Fáil, meanwhile, is still considering its limited options for the presidency.