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  • Opinion

Presidential campaigns are not getting dirtier — they are just more public

Wednesday, 26th October, 2011 10:36am

FUNNY how time changes perceptions. As we vote to elect our ninth President this week, we might bear in mind that when the position was first advertised in 1938 the worry was that it could be a stepping stone to dictatorial powers. [private]

So much for all the current guff about it being a non-political, strictly ceremonial role. With Hitler, Franco and Mussolini strutting their stuff about Europe the last thing the Irish Government wanted was someone in the Áras getting notions, especially the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. So all political factions agreed on a compromise — Douglas Hyde.

The apolitical 78-year-old academic and founder of Conradh na Gaeilge didn't strike anyone as dictator material.

Interestingly, it was his Protestant faith that proved the clincher for De Valera. He wanted to dissuade people of the notion that this was a confessional state. No Rome rule here, indeed.

When Hyde died in 1948, the only member of the then inter-party Government who would set foot in St Patrick's Cathedral was Michael D Higgins's old friend and mentor, Dr Noel Browne.

Dev and his Fianna Fáil opposition stood outside with the Cabinet while the funeral rites were taking place, sending in future President Erskine Childers, also a Protestant, to represent them.  And this caution proved wise as no one was turned into a goat. So there!

By 1948 Sean T O'Kelly was the first Fianna Fáil President, elected in 1945, but the race proved to Fine Gael that coalitions were the only way to oust Dev and Co from power. O'Kelly served a second term unopposed and the office was ready for De Valera to be put out to grass in 1959 when he beat the "Blacksmith of Ballinalee", General Sean MacEoin, who also ran in 1945.

 

Haughey blamed yet again

 

1966 was the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and Fianna Fáil persuaded a reluctant Eamon de Valera to go for a second term. Despite the orgy of commemoration that pandered to nationalist bloodlust, De Valera's party was deeply unpopular at the time. They knew that the only way of holding on to the Presidency was to have a 1916 leader stand again for them.

Dev's director of elections at the time was none other than Charles J Haughey, Minister for Agriculture. He and his canny crew knew the wind was against them, even with De Valera as front man. In fairness, Dev was 84 and almost blind at this stage and didn't relish being a poster boy for the mohair-suit brigade taking over his party.

Fine Gael ran one of its own TDs, Tom O'Higgins, in what was almost a re-run of the Civil War.

And he almost carried it off. O'Higgins came within 1% of Dev's 558,861 first preference votes, polling 548,114.

What swung it for Fianna Fáil, the story goes, is that in the final days of campaigning, the Minister for Agriculture, Dev's campaign manager, announced a hike in the price of milk paid to farmers. That secured enough support to push Dev over the line, but barely.

He was said to have been bitterly disappointed at his close shave and blamed, yes indeed, none other than his campaign manager Haughey for his failure to sweep his Blueshirt opponent off the pitch.

O'Higgins tried again in 1973 but was defeated by another reluctant Fianna Fáil candidate — Erskine Childers.

Poor Childers hardly lasted a year but at least he got a State funeral for himself. In true Irish political fashion the big boys got together in a huddle and agreed that Rita Childers, the late President's widow, would be his agreed replacement, without the need for a bothersome election.

 

Poor hearing sinks presidential hopes

 

WHAT follows is part of political folklore. The story goes that Fine Gael TD Tom O'Donnell, who was partially deaf, misunderstood a question posed by a journalist and let the secret about Rita Childers out of the bag before Fianna Fáil could announce it.

Jack Lynch smelled a rat, suspecting FG of trying to claim credit for the compromise, and pulled the plug on the deal. Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh became the fifth President, unopposed as it turned out, so he took up office without a vote being cast.

The Blueshirts with the help of their Labour colleagues in Government were again responsible for another Fianna Fáil shoe-in in 1976.

Coalition Minister for Defence Paddy Donegan, while "tired and emotional" at a function, referred to President Ó Dálaigh as a "thundering disgrace" (the sanitised version) or "thundering bollox and fucking disgrace" (the version Ó Dálaigh himself believed) and resigned from office.

Donegan made his remarks at an army function in Mullingar and was referring to the President's decision to send the new anti-terrorist emergency powers legislation to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality.

Taoiseach Liam Cosgrove refused to dismiss his Minister, even voting confidence in him in the Dáil, so the President resigned.

The whole affair was so embarrassing for the Government that Paddy Donegan was given some time to ‘rest' and Fianna Fáil's Paddy Hillery headed to the park, again unopposed.

In 1983 he was again appointed for another term, unopposed, despite Phoenix magazine running regular "President Hillery to Visit Ireland" headlines, digging at his penchant for foreign travel and golfing in the sun.

Sean McBride, holder of the Lenin Peace Prize and former IRA chief, made it known to all and sundry that he was willing to take up residence in the Áras but the country back then wasn't ready for a President with a foreign accent and the French-born McBride couldn't garner the necessary support to run.

Next we move on to the era of the candle in the window. The 1990 Presidential election was a watershed in many ways. Obviously Mary Robinson was, and still is, I presume, a woman, but she was also the first non-Fianna Fáil-backed President.

Michael D Higgins supported an attempt to get Labour's support to run Dr Noel Browne but Dick Spring and the right of the party preferred the Robinson option.

This was the famous Brian Lenihan "on mature reflection" election. Lenihan, then Tánaiste, was caught out having admitted to journalist Jim Duffy that he rang President Hillery in 1982 to try and influence him not to dissolve the Dáil.

Again Charlie Haughey reared his ugly head and sacked Lenihan as a member of his Government in light of the Árasgate scandal. Castlebar man Padraic Flynn then stepped in to give the Robinson camp a major boost by questioning her "new-found interest" in motherhood and family live on air during a debate. The dig swung large numbers of women into the Robinson camp. Much more tasteful was Flynn's assertion that Robinson would turn the Áras into the "Red Cow Inn".

Political mythology has Robinson romping home but this is not the case. Lenihan topped the first preference poll with 44.1% as opposed to Robinson's 38.9%. However, in yet another Fine Gael self-inflicted wound, the party ran Austin Currie (SDLP) who took only 17% but his transfers pushed Robinson well ahead of Lenihan.

Mary Robinson was a credit to the nation and is also credited with saving the Presidency. Until she was elected there had been much talk of abolition of the ceremonial post but you don't hear any of that now.

She also broke the male domination of the Presidency and by the time 1997 came around, four of the six candidates were women.

The most memorable aspect, politically, of this election was the public shafting and humiliation of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds by his own party and Bertie Ahern in particular.

Ahern and his cronies decided Mary McAleese was a better choice and arranged for her to win the party's selection contest. Having orchestrated his downfall, Ahern famously approached Reynolds and showed him his ballot paper with his number one vote going to Reynolds.

 

Bertie's shafting of Albert Reynolds

 

Politics is a dirty business but the memory of the stunned Reynolds following the announcement of McAleese's securing of his party's support remains one of the low points for me. All credit to him for not being a hypocrite and very publicly snubbing McAleese's offer of a handshake while Ahern's dagger was still firmly in his back.

This was the year the Presidential election was brought forward by a couple of months because Mary Robinson bailed out early to take up the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

McAleese romped home, trailed by Fine Gael's Mary Banotti, then Dana on nearly 14% of the first preference vote. Adi Roche and Derek Nally trailed the field.

So that's it as far as voting in Presidents goes, but not the politics surrounding this supposedly non-political office. In 2004 Fianna Fáil supported McAleese in her desire to serve a second seven-year term. Fine Gael, still smarting from the Austin Currie disaster, also supported her.

The real political excitement centred on the Labour Party tearing itself apart over Michael D Higgins's desire to run. The leadership had no wish to contest an election, especially against such a popular opponent as McAleese. But Michael D pushed it to the wire and came within a hair's breadth of securing the support of Labour's National Executive to run. He missed out by one vote, it's believed.

Dana also wanted to run but the main parties united against her and she got no support from county councils (her 1997 route) or Oireachtas members. The Green Party got cold feet about running Eamon Ryan so in the end there was no one to give McAleese a run and she was elected unopposed.

So this Thursday's election is by no means the culmination of the dirtiest Presidential election ever, just the most public.

Traditionally the dirt was kept within the political families, hidden from the public, now it's out in the open.

What remains to be seen is whether we in the media don the green jersey after Friday's winner is announced and suspend the hunt, or whether the new President will be the focus of unprecedented scrutiny.

Either way, following this light-hearted interlude normal service will resume on Saturday with the Budget show. Diversion over, time to get back to grim reality. [/private]

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