Nothing Compares 2U: The Presidential Race of 2011

President Higgins visiting NUI Galway 7 April 2016. Photo by Daniel Carey.

As the current Irish presidential election winds towards its conclusion, in what The Irish Times has declared a “non-contest”, Michael D. Higgins enjoys a commanding lead. Occasional skirmishes over his limited participation in debates and his expenses in office have done little to enliven a rather predictable campaign, distinguished only by the absurd entry of three former Dragon’s Den businessmen into the competition (and Peter Casey’s racist remarks on the Traveller Community). What a contrast in the level of intrigue and plot reversal in the 2011 election that brought Higgins to the Áras.

The campaign of 2011 had a bit of everything, including allegations of cash in a bag, sex abuse scandals, a political kneecapping, and a cliff hanger conclusion, which saw Higgins come out ahead of Seán Gallagher, an independent (aka Fianna Fáil) candidate. We had an ex-Eurovision winner (Dana Scallon), a gay human rights campaigner running from the Seanad (David Norris), a Dragon’s Den businessman (Gallagher), a Republican with a dark past (Martin McGuinness), and a former government minister (Higgins), plus the remarkably forgettable Gay Mitchell (who represented the Fine Gael, the ruling party, not long installed in government). The drama continued right to the end, before a climactic TV debate and a still-disputed revelation turned the result in Higgins’s favour. It deserves a documentary.

The contest began with David Norris, the flamboyant senator, as heir presumptive in the race. But things took a curious turn with the revelation that he had written a letter of support in 1997 for his former partner, Ezra Nawi – on Oireachtas letterhead – asking an Israeli court to show clemency after Nawi was convicted of statutory rape of a 15-year-old boy. Norris dropped out in August 2011 and then rejoined in September. At one point he appeared to feel the need to conciliate over his homosexuality and stated that he would not bring a partner to Áras an Uachtaráin if elected. Hard to imagine that marriage equality was enshrined in the constitution only four years later or that Leo Varadker’s sexual preferences should cause so little ripple when he became Taoiseach in 2017.

Dana was scuppered by a different sex scandal in September. She interrupted a TV debate moderated by Miriam O’Callaghan to announce that “malicious and untrue allegations” had been spread about her family. The trouble was she didn’t say what they were, merely fuelling the fire. Eventually the story broke that her brother had been accused of sexual abuse (he ended up facing five counts of indecent assault against two girls under age 16, dating back to the 1970s). He was cleared in July 2014, long after the vindication could assist Dana’s campaign.

Of the many moments of light relief, my personal favourite came in the presidential debate on TG4 on 18 October 2011 during which candidates were inevitably asked for their views on the Irish language. Few pieties in any context can rival ones uttered about Irish by those incapable of speaking it. David Norris didn’t do badly as Gaeilge, but the mellifluous Michael D. came across like an irritating best boy in school unduly pleased with himself, although it was hardly his fault.

Meanwhile, Gallagher had surged ahead in the polls, buoyed by a curious sense in the electorate that his business experience would somehow be good for a country mired in economic hardship and in desperate need of job creation (as if the President of Ireland could affect such matters). His status as an independent also appeared to do him good, although he had served on Fianna Fáil’s national executive.

Martin McGuinness trailed in third, unable to shake the shadow of his Republican past. As election day approached, he clearly decided to give a masterclass in how to take down a political opponent – Gallagher – even if it wouldn’t promote himself into presidency. Pat Kenny moderated the final debate on Frontline, with Gallagher heading the polls with a massive lead of more than 15 points. McGuinness, conveniently positioned beside Gallagher, announced that he had been contacted two hours before coming to the studio by someone who claimed that Gallagher had arranged an event where people paid €5000 to meet Brian Cowen while he was Taoiseach and that Gallagher had personally collected the cheque from this individual. McGuinness condemned this as an example of the “rottenness” of the system of cronyism and the “brown envelope culture”.

Gallagher denied receiving the cheque which prompted McGuinness to describe him as being in “deep, deep trouble”, uttered with a thin smile that suggested he knew exactly how this would play out. Later in the discussion Gallagher said he had “no recollection” of receiving the cheque, with unfortunate Nixonian overtones, and made matters worse by condemning the source of the story as a “convicted criminal and a fuel smuggler”, which prompted Kenny to point out that this disreputable figure was the someone “you invited to a Fianna Fáil do”. The car crash continued in slow motion as he eventually conceded that “if he gave me the cheque it was made out to Fianna Fáil Headquarters”, hardly a wringing exculpation.

It wasn’t until the end of last year that Gallagher received some vindication. RTÉ paid damages to him and issued an apology for Kenny’s reading out of a tweet on the programme that falsely claimed that a man had given Gallagher money for a Fianna Fáil fundraising event.

The damage, in any case, was done. The scenario, even if fabricated, would have been unremarkable under ordinary circumstances, but in 2011 visions of Ray Bourke, Bertie’s dig-out, and a discredited Fianna Fáil came flooding in. Gallagher was toast, and Michael D. rose to the presidency on the third count.

2018 is a pale comparison. We will have to wait another seven years before an election occurs in the absence of a popular incumbent. But the chances of seeing another episode replete with the ironies and incident of 2011 remain remote. 2011 was one for the ages.

Daniel Carey

Daniel Carey, MRIA, is Director of the Moore Institute for the Humanities and Social Studies at NUI Galway and Professor of English in the School of English and Creative Arts. He is a Vice-President of the Royal Irish Academy and a board member of the Irish Research Council. He was Chair of the Irish Humanities Alliance 2014-16.