Ireland | Ciaran Sunderland
Ciaran Sunderland looks back on the Irish Presidential election 2018, and laments the waste of everyone’s time that went with it.
Despite descending to the squalid level of a petty County Council election, Ireland elected its President for a second term. The inevitable landslide victory of Michael D. Higgins (or Miggledy in his latest internet reincarnation), was not entirely without surprise with the strong showing of runner up, Peter Casey, Dragon’s Den businessman and supposed champion of the ordinary man. However, the actual value of the entire exercise was not calculated as the vote tallies were totted up. Did Ireland really need to hold an election to replace a popular head of state that was universally held in high regard?
Perhaps the first indicator of the calibre of this election was the ambiguity of said universally regarded figure’s future. Higgins promised to only sit one term in his first election but his hesitation to rule himself out for another term in 2017 left enough time for speculation to develop. If he had nominated himself earlier (as a sitting President can), and received earlier widespread support, it may have deterred other candidates from seeking nominations from County Councils or political parties from running candidates. Independent Senator Craughwell was one of the first out of the gate to air his chances but later withdrew, lashing out at the nomination process but succeeding in opening Pandora’s box of candidates.
Now, early declarations from Higgins are all well and good but would have been unlikely to have deterred the first illustrious candidate Kevin Sharkey, the Donegal Artist and an “Ireland First” President, from chasing a nomination. The son of a Nigerian medical student and an Irish woman, Sharkey had been knocking around for a few years voicing anti-immigration rhetoric. Entirely lacking in self awareness, Sharkey had originally intended to contest a local election with this platform.
The nature of the Presidential election as a second tier election also does not contribute to a valuable use of the electorate’s time.
Briefly homeless in 2016 due to personal financial circumstances, Sharkey could have offered some valuable perspective to the election. He also had a difficult childhood in foster care and was subject to abuse in the St Joseph’s Industrial School in Salthill. Sharkey could have added something more valuable to public discourse as Ireland attempts to reconcile the State’s failures with single mothers and children. But still, “Ireland is being repopulated” and all that.
The nature of the Presidential election as a second tier election also does not contribute to a valuable use of the electorate’s time. Voter’s motivations and approaches are different as the result is less likely to have a direct impact on their lives. As such it is difficult to make issues stick in an election thats move quickly away from matters of public affairs and focuses very quickly on the private affairs and microscopically analysing the flaws of the candidates. Perhaps this may explain the lack of connection of Joan Freeman who ran on platform of improving mental health but quickly had to spend time distancing herself from connections with the Iona Institute. With just a single issue, Freeman was quickly swamped in the crowded field.
This crowded field is also to blame for the poor quality of the election. Previously, Presidential elections typically had two or three candidates although back in 1997 there were five. 2011’s election was bigger again with seven candidates but what was more remarkable was the number of candidates nominated by the County Councils outnumbered political party nominations, 4:3. In 2018, County Councils were even more enthusiastic to nominate candidates and bestowed us with four: Gavin Duffy, (an empty suit); Sean Gallagher, (a glutton for punishment); Peter Casey, (will be discussed in good time); and the aforementioned Joan Freeman, (unfortunate). Hopefully this method to the ballot paper does not grow in popularity as the quality of the candidates does not seem to improve despite the competition for a nomination while the open forum seldom attracts the most grounded people (Bunty Twuntington McFuff anyone?).
Peter Casey, the second sublime candidate and a Dragon’s Den panellist became effectively the story of the election despite the landslide election result by Higgins. Casey made a number of direct attacks throughout the campaign on Higgins and did not shy away from highlighting Presidential expenditure. Some attacks were ludicrous, the idea that Higgins spends €10,000 on dog grooming being one such example. However, the use of the Lear jet to Northern Ireland did manage to linger over Higgins thanks to repeated references by Casey. There was also an American tinge to his campaign. In response to unconfirmed reports that Higgins brought his official drivers abroad with him, Casey published a video on social media of him driving a golf ball into Lough Foyle. Captioned “this is the only ‘driver’ I’ll be bringing to the Áras when I get elected,” a campaign stunt like this is typical of American politics but looked very out of place in an Irish setting.
Casey eventually indulged in dog whistle politics in a desperate attempt to save a flatlining campaign. The conflict between Traveller and Settled communities is a long running sore, and picking that scab was a low and desperate act. One of Ireland’s oldest prejudices was taken out and aired in public to whip some desperate votes. The injustice of doing so in any election is all the more amplified in a Presidential election.
Casey eventually indulged in dog whistle politics in a desperate attempt to save a flatlining campaign.
What’s more remarkable about the entire affair was the absence of Traveller issues (like every other issue) from the Presidential agenda. With a homeless crisis spreading from the capital city to the nation more widely, and one of the greatest foreign and economic policy challenges faced by Ireland approaching with Brexit, the taxi driver rhetoric of Casey (and that does a disservice to taxi drivers) was an insult to the public and the other candidates. While the candidate should be written off, the voters who backed him shouldn’t. If a protest vote for Casey was the first warning of an economically discontented electorate then it should be given proper consideration.
Sinn Fein’s failure to have impact on the public discourse is really the only interesting result to emerge from the entire sorry business. Perhaps due to a lack of candidate recognition and a failure to attract a protest vote, the campaign’s failure was palpable when Liadh Ni Riada returned a paltry 6.38%. This result may put on hold the party’s rebranding plans under Mary Lou McDonald to move away from the party’s Trouble’s associations. The attempts to appeal to a broader electorate did not return the expected results compared to the Same-Sex marriage and 8th amendment referendums.
Ireland gave its verdict on this tawdry debacle with the lowest turnout in history for a Presidential election. Only 43.87% of the electorate or 1,492,338 people decided this was worth their time and this is where the true value of the election is calculated. No details of the cost of the Presidential election to the State have been released yet, although candidates who reached 12.5% of the vote, like Higgins and Casey, are entitled to some reimbursement of campaign expenses. Unfortunately no clause exists for refunding the Irish public’s time. Some of the candidates will get their money back, but will we?
Originally published 22.11.18 in Vol. 2 No. 1.