Jim Carroll

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On the Polls: the heat is on

There are probably many potential voters out there in their twenties and early thirties who have never voted in an Irish presidential election before who are wondering “is it always this eventful?”. The race for the Aras is turning out …

Wed, Oct 12, 2011, 09:22


There are probably many potential voters out there in their twenties and early thirties who have never voted in an Irish presidential election before who are wondering “is it always this eventful?”. The race for the Aras is turning out to be one hell of a campaign, but much of this is down to the fact that you have seven runners in the race and they have to work hard to get our attention. Thus, we have the stunts where the candidates act the maggot, interviews where individuals lose the rag (hello Dana!), debates where super-diva Vincent Browne brings his entire library with him, clashes with turf-cutters and questions about US passports (hello Dana again!). Like I said, one hell of a campaign.

But for some of the candidates, this campaign is turning out to be a very enjoyable autumnal stroll. When we wrote about the prez election a few weeks ago, we predicted that Sean Gallagher would still be in the running at the end of the day. That said, I didn’t expect that brace of opinion polls last week to put him near the top of the rankings – I thought he’d still be in the race on count day if he got enough tansfers. But Gallagher has been steadily and quietly hustling away for number ones all over the country for months now and his approach is working.

In some ways, Gallagher has been quite innovative. His showing so far suggests that you don’t need to spend a small fortune polluting the country with posters on lamp-posts to make an impact (which cost the taxpayer €3 per poster, as the candidate keeps reminding us), something which is sadly unlikely to have an effect on political parties in the future. Moreover, Gallagher has been very upfront about dealing with the Fianna Fail questions when they’re thrown at him and has never denied the association (to some degree, anyway). The only surprising aspect of the ongoing due dilegence on Gallagher to me is that no-one has looked at how his investments in various Dragons’ Den projects are doing. For a man who talks a lot about business and entrepreneurship (and his time as a youth worker), surely that would be a good line to investigate?

Martin McGuinness’ unexpected encounter with David Kelly in an Athlone shopping centre on Monday (and yesterday’s comments by Anne Travers) highlights the issue which won’t go away. Watching the meeting between McGuinness and Kelly on the RTE news, it was the stunned looks on the faces of the people who were with McGuinness on the stump which caught my eye. Yes folks, this is what can happen when you go out to canvas with a gunman (retired).

There has been a lot of talk about how if McGuinness the IRA man is good enough for the Unionists up north that it should be grand for us down south too. But it’s a different matter when the issue has never really been addressed in the same way by the population down here. Sinn Fein’s rise in the Republic has been down to a protest vote and some “sneaky regardism” for their rep in their home base. Increasing that vote is going to be difficult when you get reminders like yesterday of an unsavoury past. Trying to spin that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail politicians of old had blood on their hands when they took power overlooks the fact that that is relative ancient history, while the savage campaign by the IRA is of a more recent vintage and easier to recall. McGuinness’ attempt to put the incident to bed just didn’t go far enough, but he’s not going to come out and condemn outright every IRA attack on innocent civilians and members of the Gardai and Irish Defence Forces for a variety of reasons involving loyalty to his tribe.

But there are very few people, either those who will vote for him or those who will never expess a preference at the ballot box for Sinn Fein, who believe that McGuinness left the IRA in the early Seventies. I mean, how do you leave the IRA? Do you send in a letter of resignation (if so, David Norris isn’t the only one who is slow about showing his letters)? Do you just not turn up one day for a bombing job? Do you do a Carlos Tevez and say to your boss ‘nah, feck this for a game of cowboys, I can’t be arsed going out to murder a few Brits today’? Wouldn’t it be far better if he came out and said, for instance, ‘of course, I was involved, you clowns, how else do you think we ended up with peace up there if I wasn’t able to go and talk to the hard-chaws and gobshites in the ‘Ra as one of them? For fuck sake, cop yourselves on, lads’.

Meanwhile, Michael D Higgins continues to exude happiness and joy as he wanders the land as the favourite for the gig. No-one has landed a punch on him, though he’s well capable of returning any slaps which come his way with a few sharp digs of his own (see his retort to Sinn Fein on Monday, reminding everyone of the eduction cuts they’ve made in government up north). The jibes seem to be more about his age and size than any past policies (or “drinking champagne and reading poetry” to quote Gay Mitchell on This Week on Sunday) so you know opponents are getting desperate for dirt that will stick when they resort to ad hominem attacks. At this stage, it’s his campaign to lose.

It will be fascinating to watch how Fine Gael try to turn this one around for their man. The plain people of Fine Gael chose Gay Mitchell to thumb their nose at attempts by HQ to impose a candidate on the party and now, they’re stuck with him. The scrappy, unlovable Dub is in the fight of a lifetime and he’s like a scalded cat out there at the moment. Speaking on This Week on Sunday, Mitchell hit out at everyone, but it came across as a desperate ploy by a desperate man rather than some well thought-out strategy. He’s got the party out canvassing for him now so it will be interesting to see what effect that has on his standing in the next opinion poll. For now, though, Mitchell is not really in the race.

The same seems to be the case with Mary Davis, Dana Rosemary Scallon and David Norris. While all three have had their share of publicity, they’ve also had their fair share of scrutiny as the due dilegence is, er, diligently carried out. Davis will have been disappointed at her showing in those opinion polls, given her campaign, but the fact that Gallagher is mopping up those undecided votes puts the kibosh on her. Dana’s campaign has never caught fire like it did in 1997 – Ireland really is a different country 14 years on and her traditional support base seems to be giving their vote to Anyone But Dana this time out. The huffing and hedging over US citizenship did her no favours, while the family row doesn’t help you when you’re supposed to be a family values candidate. Her snippy, petulant, grumpy performance on the Today with Pat Kenny radio show on Monday was also a turn-off.

There’s a distinct feeling that the Norris campaign lost a huge number of champions and supporters after the result of those opinion polls last week. The big online love-in is over – there’s not as many people now who accuse those who criticise the senator or say they’re not going to vote for him of doing so because they’re homophobic – and the mob has stopped spinning. Furthermore, their man has not had a good campaign. Suzy Byrne is right when she calls his walkabout on Dublin’s Moore Street at the start of the week as being more like “a student union hustings” than a presidential speech. While the letters’ row has died down a little (this week, anyway), Norris and his team just don’t seem to know what they’re doing. He’s beginning to resemble one of those also-ran candidates in a US presidential primary who knows they’re not going to make the White House yet is determined to stay in the race anyway.

But there are two weeks to go and we know that anything can happen in a fortnight. Will Higgins maintain that lead? Can Gallagher pull level with or overtake the Labour dude? Will the ghosts of that IRA past continue to lose McGuinness votes? Do Fine Gael have any chance of getting Mitchell into the Aras so he can see the lights of Inchicore across the park? And are we right to dimiss Davis, Dana and Norris at this stage? It’s still all to play for, sports fans.