How the presidential campaign went wrong for four out of six candidates
Level of antipathy borne out by shockingly low turnout
Presidential candidates: Gavin Duffy; Joan Freeman; Liadh Ní Riada; Peter Casey; Sean Gallagher and the victor, Michael D. Higgins.
President Michael D. Higgins is declared elected during the announcement of the results. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Sinn Féin candidate Liadh Ní Riada, watched by the party’s deputy leader Michelle O’Neill (left), speaks to the media as she arrives at Dublin Castle. Photograph : Niall Carson/PA Wire
1. Overwhelming majority, underwhelming mandate
Of the nine elections held since the office of President was established in 1938, the 2018 poll will go down in history as the most insipid, vapid and instantly forgettable.
The level of antipathy was borne out by the turnout, which was shockingly low. Until now the lowest turnout was 46.7 per cent for the 1997 election, which was in itself a lively enough affair.
In 2011, when there were seven candidates, the turnout was 56 per cent. This time, the turnout was just 44 per cent.
The low 2018 turnout cannot be wholly attributed to the fact there was an incumbent, Michael D Higgins, in the field. The 1966 campaign had a turnout of 64.7 per cent even though the sitting president, 84-year-old Eamon de Valera, decided not to campaign and RTÉ consequently – and bizarrely – decided not to report on the campaign at all.
De Valera’s younger rival, 49-year-old Tom O’Higgins, ran a modern and energetic campaign. He emphasised the generation gap between de Valera and himself to good effect. Of course, he also had the backing of the second largest party, Fine Gael.
The incumbent survived, but by less than 1 per cent. It did show that a sitting president could be vulnerable. Whatever about that theory, 2018 was never going to be the year where it was put to the test.
This campaign never sparked. Early on, a limited number of controversies were uncovered. There were allegations of a jetset lifestyle enjoyed by the President, while another candidate became embroiled in a controversy involving the HPV vaccine. One candidate was reminded of a 1978 car accident, while another had to defend a loan from a businessman whose company was investigated for pyramid selling. There was also one particularly inflammatory issue: Travellers.
But the debate just got clogged at those points and never properly flowed on from them. For a full month, the questions revolved around those narrow set of issues, like endless decades of the Rosary.
“The big difference from 2011 was there was a sitting tenant,” says a strategist for one of the losing candidates. “It was a completely different campaign then [seven years ago]. The country was going down the toilet and everything mattered.
“Now, it’s all changed. None of that made a difference. People did not give a fig that Higgins was flying to Belfast on the Learjet or about the allowance. They just didn’t care. None of those issues had any traction.”
Sure, Peter Casey’s contentious comments on Travellers propelled him into a clear second place. Significant though that may have been, it was not the main narrative. Nor was the fact that Higgins is set to be elected on the first count with a huge personal vote. Or the significant setback for Sinn Féin with the underperformance of its candidate Liadh Ní Riada.
The most significant factor was the low turnout and the ramifications it will have for the quality of Higgins’ mandate, and the status of the Office of President.
From a long way out the strategy pursued by the Higgins’ team was a clever one, maximising his position and popularity, putting him out to the public one day as President and the next day as a presidential candidate. Here was a politician who could truly run with the hare and chase with the hound.
But while it successfully ensured his re-election, it helped contribute to a process that was a non-event, with little interest generated among the public. Here was a popular incumbent up against opponents who were unknown, unproven and raw - undercard material, to be blunt about it.
The fact that three of them – Casey, Sean Gallagher and Gavin Duffy – were Dragons’ Den panellists made it farcical. Joan Freeman seemed overwhelmed at times and was a single-issue candidate in a race where issues do not feature. Ní Riada’s main problem was that she did not have the profile and instant recognisability of the late Martin McGuinness who stood as the Sinn Féin candidate in 2011 - it was always going to be a struggle for her. Higgins may have limited his debate appearances, but he was never vulnerable to any of the attacks he faced, nor did he ever cede his status as the superior candidate.
Ultimately, Higgins received two contradictory prizes: an overwhelming majority and an underwhelming mandate.
2. Higgins sets his re-election campaign in motion
As he approached the last year of his presidency, Higgins knew if he wanted to serve a second term, he had two potential problems to face. The first was his age: he would be 84 by the time his second term was completed. The second was an undertaking he made in 2011 - presumably based on his age - that he would serve only one term.
For the second half of his presidency, Higgins had hinted at his desire to stand again. But the wheels were really set in motion at the Ploughing Championship in Co Offaly in September 2017. There, during an interview with Seán O’Rourke, he gave a strong indication he would seek a second term: “I am going to give the job my full concentration and will make an announcement after the summer next year.”
His reasoning: a simple change of mind. Plus, even though he was now 77, he felt healthier now than he did at 70. And he also argued there were new challenges that were not apparent in 2011 that he was best equipped to handle as Head of State, including Brexit and climate change.
There were a small number of backbench TDs and Senators in the two biggest parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who believed he was reneging on a promise and wanted to run a candidate against him. However, even in late 2017, the leadership of both parties had little inclination of going to all the bother of running a costly campaign to take on a popular president.
There were some “noises off”. Last autumn, Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell said he would begin a search to find an Independent candidate to take on Higgins.
The name of the RTÉ presenter, Miriam O’Callaghan, who had reportedly toyed with a run in 2011 was again being mentioned - but she ruled it out early.
Meanwhile, Higgins was beginning to lay the groundwork. The volume of public engagements increased during the latter half of 2017 and into 2018. That was particularly noticeable in August - there were no holidays this year.
A number of other strategic decisions were taken early. As former president Mary McAleese had done, Higgins waited until late summer before announcing his candidature - he did it during July. It was unusual for a sitting President to be involved in an election. Higgins decided he would continue with a full Presidential programme (where he would appear as President) and conduct a parallel campaign as a candidate. Thus his status after September 25th would change from day to day.
An adviser to a rival said: “The prime example of it was Ballinasloe Horse Fair. All the other candidates arrived down and were bombarded with testy questions. But Michael D Higgins was there as President and so he could get maximum publicity without the need to answer any questions. He was having it both ways.”
This is how another strategist for a losing rival assessed it: “The 12 months lead-in has been masterful. He has done nothing to cause a wobble on the throne. The justification for being dethroned lessened with each passing day.
“The bonus was you were able to do all the presidential things while being a presidential candidate. I know you are being President in Croke Park but you are also waving live to 800,000 people. The inherent advantage there is priceless.”
3 The mad dash
On the face of it, what happened in September 2018 was very familiar. We had seen it before, with presidential hopefuls doing the rounds of county councils seeking four nominations.
There were complaints that Higgins had deployed the McAleese tactic of delaying announcing his intentions until the last possible moment, narrowing the timeframe for rivals.
To be fair, Higgins’ intentions had been well known for some time. The problem was a logistical one. Councils were in recess during August. In addition, they were not in a position to nominate until the writ for the election was moved, and that did not happen until early September.
It played out as it did in 2011. But the tenor and the atmosphere was not generating the same interest now as seven years ago. “It was a very different campaign back then,” says a key adviser for one of the candidates. “In 2011 we had 11 to 12 aspirants and they were whittled down to seven. The likes of Fergus Finlay; Maireád McGuinness; Pat Cox; Gay Byrne and O’Callaghan were all being mentioned back then.
“All that created a story before the story and kept interest levels high. Look at Fianna Fáil’s pursuit of Gay Byrne for example.”
The adviser continued: “Here, the interest was marginal. I know Brexit, the Charleton Tribunal and the cervical cancer scandal rightly took priority. But the campaign never took off, either in the summer or the autumn. You could count on one hand the number of times the presidential election was the top item on the news.”
Even though candidates being nominated by councils is relatively novel (Dana Rosemary Scallon was the first in 1997), local authorities now jealously guard that power.
There was some intrigue during the summer about who would run. Fianna Fáil’s front bench had ruled out running a candidate and endorsed Higgins, as did Fine Gael; Labour; the Greens and the Social Democrats. Notwithstanding that, there was an effort by a Galway councillor to get Fianna Fáil’s Eamon O Cuív on the ballot paper, a move strongly pressed down by the leadership.
Some other names were mentioned, including Craughwell, Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh and Noel Whelan. But all were ruled out by summer’s end. A number of potential candidates had emerged by the end of August including Duffy and Freeman. In mid-September, Gallagher re-emerged onto the scene, followed by the third former Dragons’ Den panellist: Casey.
Thus began the carousel of county council meetings. Gallagher had clearly come prepared. Within 24 hours of entering the race he had his four nominations secured: Mayo, Roscommon, Leitrim and Wexford. There was almost unanimous support for him from Fianna Fáil, which quickly resulted in him being seen as that party’s proxy candidate. Unlike in 2011, he did not demur from the description.
Meanwhile, Duffy and Freeman had also secured their four nominations within days. Duffy had won the support of Fine Gael TDs in Meath. He had previously chaired the party leadership debates between Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. Despite denying any party affiliation, he too was perceived as a proxy candidate.
Would anyone else join them? There were some marginal candidates, and more serious ones. Kevin Sharkey and Jimmy Smyth garnered some headlines. There was also the freelance journalist Gemma O’Doherty. Her belief in the conspiracy theory that the State was involved in the murder of crime reporter Veronica Guerin put paid to her chances.
In Fingal County Council, the late journalist’s brother, Councillor Jimmy Guerin, described her allegations as hurtful, offensive and “disgusting”.
“In 22 years only two people I have come across say John Gilligan is not responsible for Veronica’s murder: one is John Gilligan. The other is Gemma O’Doherty,” he said.
With Duffy’s nomination, that looked to be that. But that was when Casey announced his arrival. He had entered the race late, because he had fallen ill in the US and had been in hospital until early September. Upon his return, some of his early addresses to councils were unfocused and unpolished. He also made a few strange promises, including one to donate his pay to councils.
In his address to Dublin City Council he said both his parents were alcoholics, before quickly correcting himself: “Sorry, workaholics.” Independent councillor Mannix Flynn retorted: “Same thing. You couldn’t make this up.”
It was at this meeting that joke candidate Bunty Twuntingdon McFuff made her first appearance, with an outrageous pink outfit and even more outrageous comments, that sent up the whole process. Bunty would later make a cameo appearance on the Claire Byrne Live debate on October 19th when she started (unfunny) heckling from the audience but was shut down quickly by Byrne, who would have none of it.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin officially endorsed Ní Riada on September 16th. She had been the frontrunner and was seen as the modern type of forward-looking politician Sinn Féin were now projecting under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald. Ní Riada had a problem though. She might not have had the late McGuinness’ baggage, but neither did she have his national profile.
Casey was getting traction, though. Councillors were keen to exercise their democratic powers, and Kerry and Clare both obliged on September 17th. By the following day he had secured the required four councils with backing from Tipperary and Limerick.
There were now six candidates in the race.
O’Doherty was the only person who was still seriously chasing a nomination. She got some of the distance in Kilkenny but it was soon clear she could not continue to go down this route.
The only other way of getting a nomination was to get the backing of 20 Oireachtas members. That had proved difficult in the past - Eamon Ryan of the Greens in 2004 and Independent senator David Norris in 2011 had both failed to muster support in that manner, although Norris did get the backing of four local authorities seven years ago.
Now Craughwell and the Roscommon-Galway TD Michael Fitzmaurice, who had been working on this for some months, were saying they might have the numbers to back a candidate. However, when they met on the night of September 19th, it became obvious very quickly that it was not possible. They had 19 TDs and Senators but there was disagreement over the voting system, and some said there were some candidates they would not support in any circumstance.
In the last few days before the close of nominations on September 26th, O’Doherty tried herself to win over 20 Oireachtas members but fell short. The die was cast.
4. The PAC intervenes
For well over a year, a small number of parliamentarians had been trying to prevent a “coronation” for Higgins by forcing an election. Part of this exercise was to raise questions about the cost of the Presidency and how its funding was being spent.
By virtue of its Constitutional status, the Office of the President is not answerable to the Oireachtas or to the Courts. Nor had it been included in Freedom of Information legislation. That meant that Áras spending was opaque to the public.
Craughwell claimed the President had stayed in a hotel earlier this year in Geneva that cost €3,000 per night. There were also questions about expenses and allowances.
To counter this, during the summer, some details had been posted on the President’s website setting out funding and expenditure in the Áras. But it was skeletal and scant and really provided no real information on how public money was being spent.
It was in this context that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) decided to look at funding and governance in the President’s Office on September 25th, the day before nominations closed.
Supporters of Higgins, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, protested, inferring it was a political witch hunt. The secretary general of Government, Martin Fraser, nominally the accounting officer for the Áras, wrote to the committee suggesting such an inquiry might be unconstitutional.
The PAC, and its chairman Seán Fleming, disregarded the suggestion and pressed on.
It was at PAC’s next meeting that the additional unaudited allowance of €317,000 per annum paid to the President became public knowledge. It also emerged that an audit committee for the Presidency had not met for nearly four years: Fraser agreed that that situation was “suboptimal”.
Some PAC members made hay of it. Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry suggested the €317,000 could give rise to “the perception of a slush fund”. It was a loaded phrase that was immediately slapped down by Fine Gael member Kate O’Connell.
But it stuck. And that €317,000 issue was to follow Higgins as tenaciously as his Bernese Mountain dogs, Bród and Síoda, for the rest of the campaign.
5. An extravagant Áras
The so-called “slush” fund dominated Higgins’ first press conference the following Wednesday. He explained it had been set at that level (€317,000) since 1998 and had been available to his predecessor McAleese. He gave some details of how it was spent, primarily to host events for the 20,000 visitors to the Áras. But he declined to make public the full figures until after the election.
Higgins stuck to that line, claiming it would give him comfort to disclose everything, but the proper presidential thing to do was to wait until after the election, otherwise a precedent would be set. In the meantime, how the money was spent remained a mystery.
Casey, who made several outlandish claims, even made a video suggesting €10,000 a year was being spent on the two dogs for grooming. Ahead of Higgins’ launch a person had broken into the Áras. Casey went so far as to say it was a stunt. Later both Casey and Higgins would have the most barbed clashes of the debates, with Higgins accusing Casey of having a “fantasy list”. In a robust exchange in the final debate, Higgins responded to Casey’s claims he was telling lies by replying his practice was “not to comment on people who say I am incapable of telling the truth”.
Higgins has maintained he is not an extravagant person and the detailed breakdown of the €317,000, promised in November, will shed light on all that.
A pattern was now emerging from all candidates that is familiar to presidential elections. Because the real powers are so limited, and the “soft powers” are so abstract, there is a undue focus on probity, to the exclusion of everything else. The media are also complicit in that.
One of Higgins’ key strategists said it prevented all candidates from having any real chance of setting out their stall: “From our point of view we were frustrated that we could not get off trivial issues. It was all expenditure and allowances from beginning to end. Sure they were issues of public interest but they were hardly the defining quality of a president.
“What is happening is they are taking the flaws of each of the candidates and amplifying them.”
And that in a nutshell is what presidential campaigns in Ireland have become.
Another aspect of note of Higgins’ launch was the huge number of campaign staff and volunteers he had, most of them from the Labour Party. Unlike the other candidates, who had tiny teams, his campaign ran an effective ground war, sending teams of canvassers out regularly in every constituency in the State.
Incidentally, at least one past president did have extravagant notions when it came to lifestyle.
Erskine Childers, elected in 1973, requested a heated swimming pool (which would have cost a colossal IR£100,000) and a squash court after his election.
He also saw a IR£16,000 Daimler with sliding roof featured in Autocar magazine and told the Government of the day it would not be a “super expensive car”.
Needless to say, the requests were all refused by the Department of Finance on cost grounds.
6. The Mysterious Businessman
By the time Senator Joan Freeman launched her campaign on October 1st, she was also under siege.
Freeman had never stood for election. She was a Taoiseach’s nominee to the Seanad in 2016 and was best known for being the founder of suicide-prevention charity Pieta House and the Darkness into Light walk.
Freeman struggled in the campaign.
She was not a natural politician, or a natural debater, and struggled with areas outside her own interests - mental health and wellness - especially relating to the Constitutional role of the President.
Her most effective line was that she was an ordinary person who was standing against four millionaires (Higgins was one of them) and a candidate supported by a big party (Ní Riada).
In the early days of the campaign, she had to defend herself against claims she was involved with the Iona Institute (her sister is Theresa Lowe, and her niece is Maria Steen, both of whom campaigned for a No vote in the abortion referendum). She herself voted No. She said that two of her daughters had voted Yes and that she would not oppose signing the Bill into law if she were President.
On October 1st, there was another looming issue. To fund her campaign, unlike others, Freeman had to get loans. One of them had come from a man called Des Walsh, whom she had briefly dated 40 years ago before losing touch with him. He was now a successful businessman in the US and he had loaned her €120,000, with the Standards in Public Office Commission insisting on a 9 per cent interest rate. But the company Walsh had headed, Herbalife, had paid a €200 million fine after being investigated for pyramid selling.
Freeman said Walsh was retired and the money had come from his “personal wealth”, not from his company. When asked had she conducted background checks on him, or done due diligence, her response: “The fundamental question - sorry I might seem very shallow - what does he look like 40 years later? Is he married? Does he have children? Where does he live?”
And that became her Achilles heel of the campaign.
7. Another event from the distant past rears its head
As it happened, Duffy launched his campaign the following day in a business centre in Smithfield, Dublin. He focused very much on his business acumen, claiming he would be the best candidate to be “deployed” to address the challenges posed by Brexit.
Duffy remained a moderate voice during the campaign. He had an idea of setting up an Irish youth corps. He also shared his idea of the State holding on to AIB (something that had little to do with the Presidency).
During the launch he claimed a clean record: “I am saying here you will not find anything in my track record. I know in my business there never has been a tax issue, a bad debt issue, I have never been involved in litigation.”
In saying his record was clean, Duffy also referred to any questions that might relate to his personal life. Duffy and his wife Orlaith Carmody have four adult children. Turning to his wife at the launch, he said: “A big consideration for us entering the race, was there anything in our personal lives that could embarrass our children? There is not.”
A few days later, the Mail on Sunday reported on an accident Duffy was involved in back in 1978, when he was 18, in which a young woman sustained a serious injury. He had two further driving offences, the most recent from 25 years ago.
It was embarrassing but it was all from a long time ago.
“I felt really sorry for Duffy,” said a member of Higgins’ camp. “The treatment he got about a car crash he was involved in when he was 18 or 19 was disproportionate.”
It did not seem to have any lasting purchase. Duffy’s problem was this: When he entered the race, he had no idea Casey harboured ambitions. Plus, he had it on good authority that Gallagher would not contest this time. When all three got nominations, he readily accepted it was ridiculous, and said they diluted the potential of each other.
It descended into near slapstick when the three former Dragons’ Den participants were placed side by side in the final Prime Time debate.
“RTÉ said it drew lots but it was a farce. I’d like to meet the person who drew lots to draw my Lotto numbers for me,” a member of Duffy’s team said afterwards.
Duffy stuck to his message but got little traction. It was another of the Dragons who would soon draw all the attention.
8. As Láthair
For the first fortnight of the campaign, Ní Riada was off the national radar. Her campaign team focused on her Euro constituency and the Gaeltachtaí, and she did a lot of local radio. The idea was a ground war first before working on a national profile.
Ní Riada had a lot going for her. She became a member of the party within the last decade and that meant “less IRA stuff coming up”, as one Sinn Féin person put it.
This campaign was a bit different. The campaign was run from her bus, with a small team. And the Sinn Féin leadership was mostly absent from the campaign. That was strange. The party is to the political doughnut what Krispy Kreme is to the sweet doughnut. You would expect McDonald and Northern leader Michelle O’Neill to be constants. But they were more absent than present.
Party people maintain that McDonald was instrumental in ensuring the membership supported the candidature.
One of Ní Riada’s big goals was to mainstream the unity debate and her strategists believe that worked to a certain extent, even though it was a “bit messy” to get messages across in a crowded field.
Like other candidates, there were plenty of stones in her shoes. She was constantly asked about her stance on the HPV vaccine following a “naive” Facebook questioning of it in 2016. She also struggled in justifying that the €47,000 net she took home was anywhere near the average industrial wage. Her late arrival into Sinn Féin did not help her escape questions about the North - she came under pressure on the Máiría Cahill case and also on her refusal to describe IRA atrocities as acts of terrorism.
Against that, she said during the Claire Byrne debate she would be willing to wear a poppy. That gesture did not go down well with some Sinn Féin representatives, however, who would never wear it under any circumstances.
Did disappearing for two weeks at the start make it harder for a relative unknown to be known? The support levels, well below the party’s average, suggest that poor choices were made along the line.
9. The debates
There was huge focus on the broadcast debates, given how pivotal they had been in 2011, especially the explosive Frontline debate that changed the course of the election.
While they attracted huge audiences - 900,000 for the final Prime Time debate - nobody particularly distinguished themselves or disgraced themselves.
Higgins agreed to participate in three, a radio debate with Cormac O hEadhra, and two TV debates – one hosted by Pat Kenny on Virgin Media One and the other hosted by David McCullagh on RTÉ.
Listening back to the debates, it was uncanny that the same tiny set of questions mostly recurred. It was like playing a game of Cluedo where the only possible suspicion allowed was Colonel Mustard in the Conservatory with the candlestick.
The impact of the absence of Higgins from the Claire Byrne debate was negated by the decision of Gallagher not to participate. Still, it was here that Ó Riada said she would wear a poppy. It was during the Ó hEadhra debate that Casey first said that the President had taken a Learjet from Dublin to Belfast. The jet incident and the Traveller controversy played out fully in the debates chaired by Pat Kenny on Virgin Media One and RTÉ’s David McCullagh.
10. The Stand-off at Cabragh Bridge
Casey’s stump line was that he had lived a third of his life in Ireland, a third in Australia, and a third in the US.
No guessing which of those cultures he imported as he embarked on his presidential campaign. His first tweet showed him hitting a golf ball into the Atlantic as he said this would be the only driver he would bring to the Áras.
The straight-off-the-bat stuff comes directly from hyper-partisan US politics. He was criticising a report (unconfirmed) the president took his official drivers abroad with him.
It was clear that Casey was not going to indulge in any soft-shoe shuffle criticism of Higgins, who others were treating as a designated national treasure.
At his launch he said the only good thing Higgins had done was meet the Queen. He went on to say he had been a wonderful president at the start but had stopped being wonderful about three years ago.
He used as evidence figures which suggested a sharp drop-off in public appearances after the first year, of 42 per cent. It was the first of many direct attacks Casey made on the President. The most direct related to Higgins using the jet to go to Belfast.
Some others were fanciful. He claimed Higgins had objected to Traveller housing in Galway in 1968. That was another politician with the same name, Micheál Ó hUiginn. He also suggested the Áras intruder might be a stunt, and even put out an attack ad on Twitter claiming €10,000 was spent each year on dog grooming.
What catapulted Casey into the public consciousness was a podcast he did with Independent News and Media in which he lambasted a Travelling family in Co Tipperary for refusing to move into a €1.7 million estate of six houses built especially for them. He claimed they had demanded stables and paddocks and said their attitude was a disgrace, given the homeless crisis in Dublin.
He also refused to accept that Travellers had a separate ethnic identity and, most provocatively, claimed that house values fell when Travellers moved into an area.
The comments were met by angry response but instead of backing down Casey doubled down on them.
“There is far too much political correctness in this society,” he said.
In that night’s TV debate on Virgin Media One, Gallagher accused him of making a “racist comment” when he said encouraging Travellers to be separate was “like giving chocolate to a diabetic”.
“I don’t think they are a different race at all so how can that be racist,” he replied.
The following day, Thursday, he travelled to the hamlet outside Thurles to view the estate. It was the biggest media moment of the campaign. There was a big contingent of media and also of gardaí. Casey faced tough questioning from reporters and was accused of partaking in a stunt. He took great exception to that.
He also declined to meet the local family. They came to the estate afterwards and criticised him for not meeting them. They also accused him of being racist. Casey shipped a lot of flak overnight for his comments and his visit to Cabragh Bridge.
Then on Friday morning came a bombshell, a statement from Casey saying he was taking the weekend to consider whether to withdraw or stay in the race. In an emotional interview with Áine Lawlor on RTÉ Radio, he again denied there is a racist bone in his body, but also conceded he had not realised that Traveller ethnicity had been officially recognised in 2017.
However, by Sunday, Casey was back in the race, buoyed up by 1,300 supportive emails he said he had received.
There was an element of dogwhistle politics to it. Casey had tapped into a section of the community who have antipathy to Travellers. And it was bigger than many had thought, even though he was probably also a repository for angry voters.
11. Jet-set lifestyle
The distance between Dublin and Belfast is about 165 kilometres according to Google Maps, and the journey takes about one hour and 43 minutes if you are not impeded by traffic.
In the first radio debate on October 13th, Casey claimed Higgins had used the jet to go to Belfast, which probably saved him no more than half an hour to 40 minutes each way.
Higgins was nonplussed and gave an answer to a question that was not asked, saying he had only used the helicopter 14 times in seven years. The story receded then until Higgins was asked about it during his second live debate, with Kenny, the following Wednesday. He cited security reasons, saying there was no transfer by road available at the border.
And so that might have lain until the following weekend, when it was disclosed the PSNI had no issue with escorts and security.
The following day, there was a subtle shift in explanation, with Higgins saying: “I take the advice from my office and my office judges these trips in terms of… logistics and security.”
No reference to the PSNI.
Front-runner Higgins was repeatedly criticised for using the Government jet for a trip to Belfast during the final presidential debate involving all six candidates.
This issue led to some prolonged clashes in the final TV debate. Casey accused him of “being untruthful” on the issue. Higgins said taking the jet allowed him to fulfil a very busy schedule that day. His account was inconsistent but it made little difference. With others talking over one another, he emerged from the debate relatively unscathed.
It was a strange and anti-climatic ending to the campaign. The viewing figures were high but the social media engagements fell dramatically as the weeks progressed. The social media figures generally were on the low side.
According to Stephen O’Leary, head of social media monitoring company Olytico there were five significant spikes in conversation on Twitter.
“They coincided with the radio debate, and the four televised debates. The biggest of these spikes came during the last televised debate during which over 20,000 tweets were published.”
Even then that was not huge. Generally, says O’Leary there were “without question, low levels of conversation. You would attribute that to the fact that it has been a one-horse race.
“You have a popular incumbent like Michael D Higgins and a field with no stand-outs.”