Michael D Higgins was elected the ninth President of Ireland on Saturday, 29 October 2011 with over one million votes. Higgins was the candidate from the Labour Party, the second largest party in parliament. A frontrunner for much of the campaign, he slipped into second place in the two weeks before the election before re-emerging as the overwhelming choice of the public, securing 39.6% of the first preference vote.
The position of President of Ireland has come vacant on thirteen occasions and there have been seven elections. Elections take place using the Alternative Vote system. There are three entry routes into the presidential election; an outgoing president may nominate themselves, 20 members of parliament may nominate a candidate and finally, a candidate can secure a nomination vote by four county councils. While there is a national vote to select the president, it is difficult to get onto the ballot paper. The number of candidates has been increasing over the decades and the highest number yet, 7, contested the 2011 election. Despite the direct mandate, the position of President is largely a ceremonial one and there are quite serious constitutional constraints which frame the post. As a consequence, presidential elections are usually candidate focused with a great deal of the emphasis on how a candidate would behave in the post. As the president is not involved in day-to-day politics discussion of policy is rarely a feature.
In 2011, the field of candidates included candidates from political parties, Gay Mitchell of Fine Gael (largest party in parliament), Michael D Higgins of Labour (second largest in parliament) and Martin McGuinness was nominated by Sinn Fein (fourth largest party), although formally he contested the election as an independent. Four non party candidates contested. They were Senator David Norris (member of Seanad Eireann and human rights advocate), Sean Gallagher (tv personality and former member of Fianna Fail), Mary Davis (organiser of the Special Olympics in Ireland) and Dana Rosemary Scallon (former MEP and candidate from a conservative Christian perspective).
The campaign for the presidency got under way in late September. Campaigning is divided into two aspects. The ground war sees candidates traversing the country in buses with their images sprayed across them. Candidates attend sporting occasions, fairs and even the biggest event in the agricultural calendar, the national ploughing championships. They kiss babies, shake hands and litter the nation with leaflets about their presidency. A feature of every presidential election, one wonders at times if it has any impact. The air war is the most important part of the election. Candidates participate in national and local radio and television interviews and debates. For the majority of the electorate, this is the way that they engage with the election. The television debates are most important with viewing figures over 700,000 for two of the debates.
As the campaign progressed, there was some complaint that there had been too many debates and that they were overly personalised and focused on the candidates. The field split into two groups very early in the race with a group of three contenders emerging from the opinion polls. The remaining candidates became the also running group. Independent Senator David Norris was embroiled in an early controversy about clemency letters he had written for a former partner convicted of statutory rape in Israel. An early frontrunner, the senator never recovered from the controversy and it featured in all of the debates. Dana Rosemary Scallon’s campaign never got off the ground and descended into chaos amid family rows and scandals. Mary Davis’ campaign faltered over allegations that she served on the governing boards of several state agencies, some of which had been discredited during the economic crisis. Her campaign suffered and she finished second last. Gay Mitchell, the candidate of the largest party, failed to grab any support and his campaign faded into irrelevance, much to the incomprehension of the largest political party. A seasoned political campaigner, Mitchell was aggressive and irritable in debates and interviews and his persona was completely at odds with the public perception of the office of President, which has been energised by two exceptionally popular incumbents over the last 21 years.
The contenders included Michael D Higgins, Sean Gallagher and Martin McGuinness. Mc Guinness initially hit the polls with support close to 20%, although this dropped back over the course of the campaign. A Northern Republican, McGuinness’ involvement in the armed conflict in Northern Ireland became a major issue for him and seems to have damaged his candidacy. Sean Gallagher was a tv personality and campaigned as an independent candidate on a platform of optimism and job creation. The message resonated very strongly with the public and he passed Michael D Higgins in the polls in the last week of the campaign, only for his candidacy to come unstuck in the last of the television debates. Under serious questioning from Martin McGuinness, Gallagher was unable to answer questions about his involvement in fundraising for Fianna Fail, the long time dominant party of Irish politics which was seriously damaged by the economic crisis since 2008. His association with a particularly controversial period of Irish politics was very damaging and an opinion poll on election day showed that it was a decisive turning point with 28% of voters switching their vote in the days after the debate. Details of the opinion poll are available on the RTE webpage.
Michael D Higgins emerged ahead of all the candidates in the debates. A longstanding member of the Labour Party, member of parliament and government minister, Higgins was well know to the electorate. Apart from his age of 70, he came under very little pressure in the campaign. He was well versed on the role of the president and at times, seemed like the only one who knew what was involved in the post. He ran a steady, if a little boring campaign and was an uncontroversial home for votes from people who moved from one candidate to the next in the course of the campaign.
With a turnout over 50%, Higgins was elected President on the fourth count after the elimination of Martin McGuinness and Gay Mitchell. Full details of all of the counts and the transfer of preference votes are available on the RTE webpage.