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On the Polls: it’s a wrap

Michael D Higgins: there can be only big winner in a presidential race and it was the man from the west who triumphed on this occasion. Aside from one outburst on the last weekend, Labour’s man ran a dignified, positive …

Tue, Nov 1, 2011, 09:34


Michael D Higgins: there can be only big winner in a presidential race and it was the man from the west who triumphed on this occasion. Aside from one outburst on the last weekend, Labour’s man ran a dignified, positive campaign. He largely kept out of the rough and tumble and attracted punters in the end who had flirted and ran the rule over rival candidates but decided that they weren’t going to vote for David Norris or Sean Gallagher after all. It says a lot that the only slights which could be landed on the veteran politican had to do with his height. The president-to-be’s greatest triumph? Persuading the Irish electorate that a man with a lifetime of dues paid to the Labour Party was actually independent. But while Higgins’ victory does mean you could say that the Aras is back to being a retirement home for old politicos, we can safely expect Michael D not to do a Paddy Hillery on the job. Add this to the Dublin West win for Patrick Nulty and it was a huge weekend for the Labour Party. While we won’t see any repeat of that Gilmore-for-Taoiseach gale which was blowing for a few weeks at the start of the year, it might mean a week or two when people won’t be looking so askance at some of the party’s big wigs’ less than brilliant performance in government to date. Potential downside to the upside? The arrival of Michael D in the Park may sadly mean a revival for The Sawdoctors – and let’s hope that he resists the temptation to stick the usual suspects on the Council of State.

Sean Gallagher and Fianna Fail: they haven’t gone away, you know. Those obituaries for Fianna Fail which were penned back after February’s general election can be put away for now going on the showing of Gallagher in the presidential election and David McGuinness in the Dublin West byelection. Yes, there are caveats galore – Gallagher did his damndest to distance himself from the party, while McGuinness’ showing probably had a lot to do with constituency-wide respect for the late Brian Lenihan – but it was a decent day at the office for what was the most despised brand in Irish politics a few short months ago. Yes, the Irish electorate have short memories. Were it not for the best TV debate moment ever, it would be Gallagher not Higgins who’d be measuring up the curtains in the Aras this week. We haven’t seen the last of Gallagher either, though he may find that he has to man up significantly and learn to throw the digs if he has to have any hopes of succeeding in Irish politics. Talking about positive campaigns is all very well, but when you’re dealing with the cowboys and Indians who dominate the local scene, you need to fight fire with fire. And the dude is a black belt in various martial arts. And did you know he used to be a youth worker? Next time out, too, let’s hope that the pol corrs don’t leave it so late in the day to carry out due diligence on a candidate who has snuck up on the outside like Gallagher. That was the real story of the campaign: how an unknown played a blinder until he was unmasked at the death. Of course, it also goes to show that it’s never too late to turn an election.

Twitter: we’ve been waiting for a social media campaign for years and I suppose, in some ways, we got one. Harry McGee has an excellent post and piece on that tweet from the Continuity Martin McGuinness fan which dominated The Frontline last week, while the Daily Mail tracked down the man who operated the account. Twitter was also where various campaigns rolled out their black ops. It began with David Norris fans berating anyone who said they weren’t voting for the North Great Georges Street James Joyce fan by accusing them of being homophobic. When the Norris bandwagon hit a wall after the first opinion poll, it was Sinn Fein fans who took to the medium with an armalite in one hand and a smartphone in the other to fume at anyone raising legitimate questions about their candidate. Perhaps, in time, we’ll cop on that Twitter and its social media cousins don’t actually win elections, but are actually a bit of an echo chamber where people largely follow and listen to people who think the same as they do about political issues (and attack, en masse, those who don’t). It’s also worth bearing in mind, as Adrian Weckler points out, that the numbers involved in Irish political debates on Twitter are low, especially given the unusually high importance this particular communication tool is given in the media.

Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein: if we are to believe the Sinn Fein spin, this was a mighty election for the only Irish political party who operate in places called “up there” and “down here”. Votes up! Profile up! Sales of t-shirts up! But let’s take a closer look at the data. Back in February, the party had their best ever Irish general election and scooped 220,661 first preferences despite not running in every constituency. A couple of months later, running a high profile candidate like Martin McGuinness in every constituency, you’d expect that number to be significantly up, yet McGuinness only took that tally to 243,030. It seems that every time it looks like Sinn Fein will take a significant step upwards that they actually falter (see also general election 2007). This time, the presidential campaign provided reminders every time McGuinness appeared or spoke of the party’s dark past and its war years. The party faithful up there may be puzzled at how those down here keep bringing this up but they need to realise that we’re talking about two very different political systems, despite the fact that we share an island. It was obvious that McGuinness didn’t like the questioning one bit – he must have been fuming at having to face those questions about his IRA past over and over and over again. It may be time for the party down here to flex some muscles and remind the party’s elder statesmen up there that it’s 2011 and it’s time for someone like Pearse Doherty (or someone similar with no ties to that past which repels more than it attracts) to lead the way, but that’s unlikely given the Stalinist stance the party takes. But how about Doherty for 2018? For one thing, he’ll be over 35 years of age.

The county councils, referendums and political reform: the county councils provide a route for would-be candidates outside the party system to get onto the prez election ticket but, as we saw from the low votes for three of the four people who availed of that option, this doesn’t mean that the public necessarily want those candidates in the Aras. There are a ton of questions to be asked about how the presidential nomination system works and how it could be changed but, as you could extrapolate from the Oireachtas inquiry referendum returns and from various opinion polls earlier in the year, the public appetite for reform may not be as huge as the pundits think. It’s also nowhere near as important as economic issues to the electorate, so expect the government to lick their wounds and leave the reform mania to one side for now.

Gay Mitchell and Fine Gael: it was an appalling day at the office for the Fine Gael man, but then again, remember that it was an appalling campaign for both candidate and party. Mitchell looked and acted sulky and beligerent all through the campaign and that, we can safely assume, is not what the Irish electorate is looking for in a head of state. It was clear from the outset that the Fine Gael hierarchy didn’t want Mitchell on the ballot paper and, despite the fact that they were the ones who put him there, many in the parliamentary party quickly realised that they’d messed up too. Given the party’s performance back in February, the outcome was a disaster. The party will want to move on quickly from this one – and the referendum outcome – but it’s not as if they’ve some choice pickings ahead with a tough budget and more austerity measures to dispense to the nation. No-one said being the top dog was easy.

David Norris: in the end, the people said no thanks to the colourful senator. The more Norris spoke, the more people realised that they didn’t want seven years of this. The Norris campaign’s various false starts, allegations and failures to deal with the allegations scuppered it long before the candidate even got the nods from the county councils. Those fans flying the flag for Norris at the beginning quickly moved away once it became obvious that there were issues to be addressed which Norris had no intention of addressing and especially once the polls showed that the Irish people were not in the mood to make his day. By the end of the campaign, Norris had calmed down a little on the histronics, but it was too little too late in the end. Sure, he still has the Seanad.

Dana and Mary Davis: we’ll use a quote from Noel Whelan to sum this one up. The pair provided some fun and games during the campaign, one spectacular meltdown (that would be Dana on the Prime Time debate – by the way, Breda O’Brien had an interesting column on Dana and her family issues) but, at the end of the day, both were “statistically insignificant” in this election. Let’s remember that when another raft of independents set out their stall in 2018.