A Eurovision Song Contest winner, a former gunman, a poet and a James Joyce impersonator are among the seven presidential candidates who are gathered together in a television studio in the west of Ireland. The poet is speaking fluently in the national language while his companions shift uncomfortably in their chairs, silently rehearsing the few words of Irish which they have prepared and will produce promptly when their turn comes before they can revert to the safety of English. While the poet speaks, English subtitles appear on the bottom of the screen and he voices his concern about appearing “bad-mannered” to the other candidates by using the native tongue.
It’s the fourth televised debate which the candidates have participated in as part of a presidential race that can be described as anything but dull. The debate is taking place in the studios of the only Irish-language broadcaster, TG4 and has been advertised as “bilingual” as a concession to the six candidates who – in spite of having been obliged to learn Irish for their entire school-life cannot claim fluency in the language.
Ireland, having ousted the long-dominant Republican party Fianna Fáil in the general election last March, is in the throes of a shift in political power. If the opinion polls are to believed, when the Irish go to the polls again next Friday, this time to elect a president to replace Mary McAllese, who has served two full terms amounting to fourteen years, they will demonstrate that they have not lost their appetite for change.
The historic, large-scale demise of the party which ruled during the years of Ireland’s economic boom has had an unprecedented effect on the course of this presidential campaign. The Fianna Fáil party, which was has been more or less dominant for the last twenty years lost a record number of seats in the March election, giving way to their centre right rivals Fine Gael and the centre left Labour party to form a coalition government in their wake.
In order to build up its party from the roots and to avoid another humiliation at the polls, Fianna Fáíl decided not to run a candidate in the election. This gave way for the republican party, Sinn Féin- which has an historic association with the Irish Republican Army, a terrorist organisation responsible for scores of deaths in the height of the conflict in northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics – to offer the electorate a candidate of their own.
They chose Martin McGuinness, former IRA chief and deputy first minister of the northern Irish Assembly (formed as part of the Good Friday Agreement between unionists and nationalists). Though he has chosen to run as an independent candidate, in the minds of the Irish people, he is inextricably linked to Sinn Féin.
In stark contrast to the party’s strong performance in the general election last March, the Fine Gael candidate, Gay Mitchell, who is the most pro-Europe of all the contestants is performing extremely poorly in the opinion polls. At last count, he had only 8% support, not significantly ahead of Dana, with the least support at 2%. Eurovision star of 1970 , former member of the European parliamant and ultra Catholic, Dana firmly believes that Ireland’s sovereignty is under threat from Europe. In more than one debate she has arrived armed with the small and humble-looking Irish Constitution in one hand and the larger European one in the other and repeated her mantra that as president, she would refuse to allow one book to smother the other. While this appears to be Dana’s only rallying call to the presidency, she produces it with wide-eyed, evangelical fervour, which is compelling to watch. Her own campaign has been marred in controversy after members of her family in America alleged that her brother and campaign manager had sexually abused a relative. She’s also been called up on “renouncing” her Irish citizenship in order to gain dual citizenship in America, particularly in the context of her campaign to maintain Irish sovereignty.
Another Independent candidate, gay-rights campaigner and James Joyce impersonator, David Norris has also been the subject of intense media controversy since it emerged that he wrote – in his capacity as Senator and on Senate-headed notepaper- to the Israeli authorities to seek clemency for his lover, who had been convicted of statutory rape of a 15 year-old boy. He pulled out of the race, waited for things to calm down, then re-entered it.
During the televised debates, Norris has claimed to be the only “independent” candidate in the race, much to the consternation of fellow Independent, Mary Davis, who is running for office predominately on the strength of having established the Special Olympics – a large-scale and extremely successful sporting event for those with intellectual disabilities. She has also had to fight off strong criticism- in her case for sitting on a number of government boards, some of which left her in receipt of six-figure sums of money. Among her assets is undoubtedly her first name which she shares with the last two Irish presidents. Were she to win and serve at least one term, Ireland would have been subject to a ‘Mary’ for a total of twenty-eight years.
The two front runners are currently Labour party candidate, Michael D Higgins and entrepreneur and former Fianna Fáíl affiliate Seán Gallagher. The former –a wizened poet whose work can be seen on the Dublin commuter trains accuses the latter of espousing the values of pre-recession Ireland, while the latter- the youngest of the candidates- promises to support Ireland abroad and to get the country moving again. Currently the leader at 39%, the electorate seems ready to forgive Gallagher his association with the party which they slaughtered at the polls last March.
The vision of all seven candidates has been continuously challenged by interviewers, who remind them that the role of Irish president is essentially nominal, and that the position affords no real political power, other than the extremely rarely exercised right to refuse to sign a bill into law.
In response, the candidates hark back to the achievements of outgoing president, Mary McAleese, who has been lauded for fulfilling her mission of ‘building bridges’ across divided communities. Her most remarkable accomplishment and the event that will no doubt dominate her legacy, was the orchestration of the visit of Queen Elizabeth of England last May. In the same week that saw the visit of President Obama, the Irish people watched with incredulity as Ireland welcomed a British Head of State for the first time in its history since becoming a republic. Most didn’t believe that they would see it in their lifetime.
The visit was an enormous success for Anglo-Irish relations. Dressed in an emerald green suit, the Queen bowed her head at a memorial to the Irish rebels that died in the 1916 Rising against British rule. But it was at the state dinner in Dublin castle, that the really remarkable thing happened: Queen Elizabeth II of England, in an Irish-designed dress laced with delicate shamrocks, rose from her chair and solemnly addressed her audience as “A Cháirde”, the Irish expression for “my friends”.
The sound of the English Queen paying homage to the Irish language and culture moved some, if not many to tears.
The struggle for the presidential candidates to find many more words than the Queen of England herself during the “Irish Language” debate revealed the incongruities that are still gripping this little nation, which – desperate for an export-driven recovery from economic ruin- continues to struggle with its own identity.