Gary Murphy – The Irish Presidential Election of October 2018

This is a guest post by Gary Murphy, Professor of Politics in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

The re-election of Michael D. Higgins as President of Ireland has been widely welcomed across the Irish political landscape. His overwhelming victory on the first count with 55.8 per cent of the first preference vote has vindicated the decision of the two main political parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to support him. The 822,566 first preference votes he received is by some distance the largest number of votes ever secured by a candidate in an Irish presidential election. The turnout in the election was, however, the lowest in Irish presidential history at just 43.3 per cent.

Higgins was first elected in October 2011 for a seven year term from a total of six candidates and has proven to be a very popular president. He has what one might call the common touch. He presided with great dignity over the state’s hundred anniversary commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising which heralded the beginning of the move towards Irish independence in 1921, and became the first Irish president to lead an official state visit to Britain in 2014.

For pretty much all of his pre-presidential political life Higgins was a devout exponent of left-wing causes both internationally and domestically. Many were fashionable in certain avant-garde circles but had little wider resonance. His two short spells in Cabinet between January 1993 and June 1997 as Minister for Arts, Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht were the oases around long barren spells in the political wilderness. Even when Labour was in government in the 1970s and 1980s, Higgins was against coalition. Then came the economic crash, the presidential election of 2011 and a political career that had all the signs of petering out to a footnote in Irish history was dramatically resurrected. Higgins’s victory had a type of last man standing quality about it. As his opponents were undone one by one by various foibles the avuncular Higgins was duly elected winning 39.6 per cent of the first preference vote.

In office Higgins has remained true to his beliefs and has made a number of speeches critical of what he sees as the global neoliberal project. He caused some controversy with his encomium on the death of the Cuban leader Fidel Casto in November 2016 where he praised Casto’s record on human rights but this was entirely consistent with his long held views of anti-colonialism and his opposition to American foreign policy. He has, however, been very careful not to overstep the constitutional boundaries of his office and made no specific criticisms of the Irish government’s policies during his seven year term.

Higgins showed a nimble dexterity in getting out of his original promise to only serve one term as President by solemnly declaring that while he did at one stage say that getting through one term was the length of his aspirations he decided he had to run again to build upon the very solid foundations he had laid in office. In that context he used his constitutional prerogative to nominate himself and the major political parties rowed in behind him.

Getting on to the Irish presidential ballot is a rather byzantine affair and is dominated by the political parties. While an incumbent can nominate themselves other candidates must either get the backing of twenty members of the Oireachtas which consists of 160 members of Dáil Eireann (the lower house) and 60 members of Seanad Eireann (the upper house), or four of the country’s 31 city and county councils, most of which are dominated by political parties.

Only one of Ireland’s political parties, Sinn Féin, decided to use their members of the Oireachtas to nominate a presidential candidate. When Mary Lou McDonald took over as Sinn Féin party leader in February 2018 she stated that she would like to see the party contest the election. Even though it had been clear for some time that President Higgins was more than likely going to run again, McDonald was determined that Sinn Féin would put forward their own candidate to challenge the popular incumbent. In mid-September the party duly nominated Liadh Ní Riada, one of its Members of the European Parliament to be its standard bearer in the election.

Most political observers were of the view that Sinn Féin would use the election campaign as a vehicle to accelerate its political momentum in the Republic of Ireland. The widespread perception was that while Sinn Féin could not realistically expect Ní Riada to mount a serious challenge to Higgins it expected to come a strong second and increase the 13.7 per cent of the vote its candidate Martin McGuinness secured in the 2011 contest and the 13.8 per cent of the vote it received in Ireland’s February 2016 general election.

When Eamon de Valera wrote the constitution in 1937 getting the support of four county or city councils for a presidential nomination would have been a gargantuan task given that Ireland was essentially a two party state and the councils were dominated by members of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who displayed strict loyalty to their party candidate. But since 1997 when the council route was first used to nominate independent candidates councillors have become somewhat intoxicated by the one real national power they have and 2018 became the third election in a row where independent candidates managed to get on the ballot through this route.

In comparative terms the Irish presidency is essentially a weak office. Presidents have very few constitutional powers of which to avail and so limited are these powers that a president has essentially no room for independent action. Nevertheless the draw of the presidency is such that the presidential elections of 2011 and 2018 have seen numerous candidates attempt to use the council route to get their name on the ballot. In 2011 three candidates were successful by dint of this route and this rose to four in 2018. These were Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy, Joan Freeman, and Seán Gallagher, who had come second to Higgins in 2011. Rather bizarrely, Casey, Duffy and Gallagher had all been part of the popular RTE television programme, Dragons Den, where the so-called dragons decided whether to invest in ideas and businesses pitched to them by putative entrepreneurs. Freeman, by contrast, was a noted campaigner for mental health initiatives and had established one of Ireland’s largest charity organisations, Pieta House.

Gallagher was a late entrant to the campaign and had received some notoriety after having sued RTE over the 2011 campaign. He had held a substantial lead until the last week of that campaign and argued that the state broadcaster’s behaviour in a television debate essentially cost him the election. This suit was not settled until December 2017. By the middle of September all four had received the required amount of nominations from the country councils and a short five week campaign of six candidates began. Four opinion polls held between 16 September 2018 and 16 October 2018 were very consistent and showed Higgins with a massive lead of close to 70 per cent, Gallagher in the low teens and the rest in single figures. The strong Sinn Féin challenge never materialised. Gallagher’s campaign was nowhere near his 2011 showing and the other independents gained no traction with the voters.

This changed dramatically in the last ten days of what had been a relatively dull campaign up to then. There has been various mutterings about supposed lavish expenses being incurred by Higgins but these gained little momentum and it appeared that none of the candidates could offer a persuasive case to unseat the incumbent. Then in a podcast interview with a national news organisation Peter Casey made somewhat incendiary comments about the travelling community wherein he criticised the decision by the Dáil to give formal recognition to Travellers as a distinct ethic group in 2017 and claimed that they were basically camping on other people’s land. He also vociferously criticised many people on social welfare claiming that Ireland had become a welfare-dependent state, with people having a sense of entitlement that had become unaffordable.

Casey was widely criticised by the other candidates and various media commentators but his comments seemed to strike a chord with various parts of the electorate and he continued with these themes in a number of media debates over the last week of the campaign. Casey had never been at more than 2 per cent in any of the polls taken during the campaign but when two exit polls were released after voting had finished on Friday 26 October he was close to 21 per cent. When the votes were counted he had received 342,727 first preferences and 23.3 per cent of the votes. The most likely explanation for the rise in the Casey vote is that it was a protest against the political establishment added with elements of prejudice against marginalised groups. The other challengers all polled in single figures with Sinn Féin’s Liadh Ní Riadh polling a disastrous 6.38 per cent to finish fourth.

Incumbency proved to be a real advantage for Higgins. The electorate were clearly happy with their president who had represented them with distinction abroad and had caused no real controversy at home. Given the constraints of the office it was extremely difficult for the other candidates to offer a persuasive case of why they should replace him. Ultimately in a resounding manner the Irish electorate were quite happy to settle for a repeat of the last seven years of the Higgins presidency safe in the knowledge that the next seven are likely to see a continuation of a safe pair of hands as their head of state.

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