“It was the best of time, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”
(A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens)
Congratulations first to Michael D. Higgins, who will be deemed elected as Ireland’s ninth president this afternoon. As someone who has spent a political career with a broad view of Irish culture and society, I’m confident he will serve us well. Congratulations also to Patrick Nulty, who won the bye-election, a man very far from my own politics, though one who will be a strong contributor in the Dáil and an interesting dynamic in this coalition. It was the first time since July 1982 that a candidate from a government party won a bye-election.
Yesterday’s election results were undeniably a bad day for Fine Gael. Gay Mitchell’s fourth place finish at 6.4% was by a good stretch the lowest the party has polled to date in any national election, with the 17% Austin Currie received in the 1990 presidential bid the next worst. In Dublin West, Eithne Loftus also finished fourth, though with a more respectable 15%. I would commiserate both candidates, and indeed all candidates in these elections. Particularly in the case of the presidential campaign, it was a very public and difficult campaign for them.
While the result for the party could have been devastating in 1990, when Currie’s performance led to the resignation of Alan Dukes as party leader, or had this occurred any time before the February election, where Fine Gael won 36% of the vote, becoming the largest party in terms of both votes and seats for the first time. That the party could win the most number of Dáil seats in its history and then poll its lowest result, requires a more complex relationship and response.
I think some within the party misinterpreted the results of the February general election. It was a vote of support for a manifesto promising reform and competent government, and for the strong team of prospective ministers. But having come so recently to the party, the general election results did not mean that 36% of the electorate were now dependable Fine Gael voters. There was no good reason to assume on the basis of this result that it was now Fine Gael’s turn to be the dominant party for 79 years. In the selection of the presidential candidate, some within the party seemed to work on the assumption that having got into a habit of voting Fine Gael earlier this year, people would naturally come out and vote for the Fine Gael candidate for president, putting the party on a starting platform at that level and with that lead on a first count, transfers would inevitably put them over the line. As it was Fine Gael’s best chance to date to win the presidency (and next to 1966, it almost certainly was), many within the party felt it natural that it should be someone who had served the party well and loyally through many years. Gay Mitchell was electorally successful at the time when Fine Gael’s popularity was low, one of three TDs to retain their seats in Dublin in 2002. He had a strong electoral track record till then, not losing a single public poll, though he had come fourth in the leadership contest after the 2002 election.
It was the party convention that selected him, with a broad base of the parliamentary party, councillor and the national executive. And Mitchell was encouraged to seek the party’s nomination by a number of TDs, as well as by former party leader and Taoiseach, John Bruton.
But many of the things which Gay Mitchell used publicly to present himself as a the best candidate to the Fine Gael Presidential Convention were things that made him a less appealing candidate to the electorate at large. He appealed to the fact that he had been a party member from the age of 16, whereas another of the candidates had only joined that week. While a reference to a mere 100 days as a party member might have dissuaded other party members, it means little to the public at large, the overwhelming number of them are not members of Fine Gael, and would not consider joining, even if they would vote for us. We have to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that either personalities or policies are good or bad because of their relationship to different parties. This is perhaps most true of the office of president, given that office-holders are expected to sever formal links with their party, but it is true more generally
The problem with focusing so much on an appeal to party members brings to mind the problem with a focus on Buy Irish as a means of economic development; just as a country’s industry will not become rich relying on its compatriots, but by being good enough that others will buy them too, someone cannot win a 50%+1 election relying on their own party’s base. Statements during the campaign that Mitchell would be a good choice because he would be able to work closely with Enda Kenny as Taoiseach probably fell entirely on deaf ears because of people’s perception of the nature of the role of president.
Mitchell’s appeal to Christian democracy held sway within certain sections of Fine Gael, but it immediately turned off large sections of the wider public. This is something we should certainly take heed from. While the airing of particular points of view in the Christian democratic tradition did not affect the party that much in February, without being part of a broader package of economic competence and reform to balance it, it did have an effect.
The most important thing I think we should get from this, to avoid the hubris of thinking that at 36% in the election, and still at around that figure in opinion polls, that the public at large support us because we are Fine Gael, rather than because of what we proposed and are doing in government. In contrasting the results between February and October, and indeed from the party’s electoral history since 1933, I don’t think it is even fair to consider yesterday’s vote the core Fine Gael support. This should not in any respect affect Enda Kenny’s strength as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael. And because we are still doing well in polls, and because I believe the country will be in better place in 2016, I would not really hold to the “despair” in the epithet above.
There is a similar lesson from the 30th Amendment Bill, the proposal to allow for Oireachtas Inquiries, and in this case, Labour also fell foul of the trap of hubris. We don’t yet know if it will be defeated, but it seems more likely than not. During the general election campaign, both parties promised citizens’ engagement with the reform of the Constitution and the political process. We are delivering on this, with the Constitutional Convention in the new year. But these Amendments could easily have been part of that, and I think it should now be considered bad practice in most instances, outside of very technical amendments like that on Local Government in 1999, to schedule referendums on the same day as other elections.
With seven candidates and none polling at 50%, there will be multiple counts in this election. The number of counts depends on how far apart the candidates are from each other at the lower end. If the candidate G is at 2%, F at 4% and E at 8%, then F and G can be eliminated together, as even all of G’s votes could not put F ahead of E. As many can be grouped in elimination as follow under this logic (as below, when Dana, Roche and Nally were eliminated together, as Nally and Roche could not together have put Dana ahead of Mary Banotti). The count will continue until one candidate reaches 50% of the remaining vote.
It is likely that there will a large proportion of non-transferable votes by the last count, as many might not fill their ballot to the candidates remaining by that point; for example, if someone voted 1 McGuinness, 2 Norris, 3 Davis, and left the rest blank, their ballot would not be in contention between the two candidates currently leading the polls.
Here then is a summary of the three elections to date with more than two candidates, to give an impression of the proportion of votes that were transferable to candidates in the last count, and how heavily they favoured particular candidates. In both 1945 and 1990, the Fianna Fáil candidate fared poorly on transfers, and in 1990, it was enough to push Robinson ahead of Lenihan on the second count. As polls this weekend stand (Irish Times/MRBI, SBP/Red C, Sunday Times/Behaviour and Attitudes), Michael D. Higgins will have to both narrow the gap on first preferences between himself and Sean Gallagher, and win an a significantly greater proportion of the transfers than him on successive counts to win this.
|Candidate||First Count||Second Count||Total|
|Patrick McCartan (Ind)||212 834||19.6%||–212 834|
|Seán Mac Eoin (FG)||335 539||30.9%||+117 886||55.4%||453 425|
|Seán T. O’Kelly (FF)||537 965||49.5%||+27 200||12.8%||565 165|
|Candidate||First Count||Second Count||Total|
|Austin Currie (FG)||267 902||17.0%||–267 902|
|Brian Lenihan (FF)||694 484||44.1%||+ 36 789||13.7%||731 273|
|Mary Robinson (Lab)||612 265||38.9%||+205 565||76.7%||817 830|
|Non-transferable||+25 548||9.6%||25 548|
|Candidate||First Count||Second Count||Total|
|Mary Banotti (FG)||372 002||29.3%||+125 514||38.8%||497 516|
|Mary McAleese (FF)||574 424||45.2%||+131 835||40.8%||706 259|
|Derek Nally (Ind)||59 529||4.7%||–59 529|
|Adi Roche (Lab)||88 423||6.9%||–88 423|
|Dana Rosemary Scallon (Ind)||175 458||13.8%||–175 458|
|Non-transferable||+66 061||20.4%||66 041|
Note: The percentages next to the column for the second count give the percentage of the transfers received by the remaining candidates and those not transferred, not the percentage of total remaining votes.
This year saw a considerable jump in the number of county and city councils exercising their constitutional prerogative to nominate candidates for president. In 1997, the first year any candidate secured the support of four councils, eleven of the thirty-four councils supported candidates, between Derek Nally and Dana Rosemary Scallon.
This year, that figure has jumped to twenty-five, nominating four candidates between them, Mary Davis, Sean Gallagher, David Norris and Dana Rosemary Scallon. The bulk of these voted for Mary Davis (full breakdown below).
So we now have a field of seven candidates, with more than half nominated by Councils rather than by Oireachtas members: Mary Davis, Michael D. Higgins, Sean Gallagher, Martin McGuinness, Gay Mitchell and Dana Rosemary Scallon.
This system of nomination for the presidency has long been criticized. In researching the elections, I came across a report from The Irish Times of 26 May 1973, in which Labour Chief Whip Barry Desmond said of the “rather outdated Constitutional requirements … I would hope that in any further revision of our Constitution this question will receive objective review … with a view to broadening the democratic aspects of the scope of the nomination”.
Throughout the years, candidates who had made their wishes to contest known and who have received national media attention have failed in their attempts to win the support of councils: Alfie Byrne in 1938, Patrick McCartan in 1945 (who later secured the signatures of Labour and Clann na Talmhan TDs in an individual capacity), Eoin O’Mahony in 1966 and 1973 and Dana in 2004.
Michael Gallagher recently outlined alternative methods of securing based on signatures. If we were to move towards linking PPS numbers with the electoral register, it should not be difficult to prevent duplication and fraud, if signatories had to sign in with ID and be crossed off a database at their local Garda station. I don’t think our current system, with some sort of vetting procedure is so outrageous by international comparisons, but there is clearly demand for a change to the system to be explored. And particularly if the size of the Oireachtas is to be reduced, it will be more difficult yet to reach 20 Oireachtas signatures. We might consider a figure such as 20,000 electors, as is the case in Finland, or 50,000, which was the number who could force a referendum under the Constitution of the Irish Free State.
But while we have the current system, aspiring candidates should treat the system respectfully. Cllr Paul McAuliffe’s speech last night highlighted perhaps the biggest problem David Norris faced with councils. While his supporters had taken the time to write to him, he had not heard from Norris himself. While one might not agree with the current system, it does put either Oireachtas members or councillors in a position where they have to publicly consider the merits of a prospective candidate. Nominations from Councils are more anonymous on the nomination form, they are listed by locality, rather than specifying any voting record, making them amenable to Independents, presumably designed with that in mind. While we do have the system, we should consider what it does mean for a representative at local or national level to take their Constitutional obligation seriously, while retaining an expectation that they would facilitate a candidate in most cases. Had Norris picked six councils, which based on political alignment he believed he would have had the best chance with, and taken the time to meet with sufficient councillors there, he would likely have secured his nomination with greater ease. It would have been harder for the councillors in South Dublin or Cork to have voted against him had they had a meaningful conversation with him. Though it would have taken effort, it is how Mary Davis managed to secure such support.Here is a table summary of the Councils which nominated candidates in 1997 and for this year’s election:
|Derek Nally||Carlow, Clare, Kildare, South Dublin, Wexford|
|Dana Rosemary Scallon||Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Longford, North Tipperary, Wicklow|
|Mary Davis||Galway, Galway City, Kerry, Limerick, Louth, Mayo, Monaghan, North Tipperary, South Tipperary, Sligo, Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow|
|Sean Gallagher||Cork City, Clare, Leitrim, Meath|
|David Norris||Fingal, Laois, Dublin City, Waterford|
|Dana Rosemary Scallon||Carlow, Donegal, Offaly, Roscommon|
Sources for the table: Wikipedia, contact with Aisling Kerr in Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.
Gerry Adams resigned his seat from the British House of Commons on 26 January 2011, and in accordance with the rules and customs of Westminster was granted the position of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead in order to facilitate this. This was wrongly reported as a barony by David Cameron; a baron is a member of the British nobility, while a steward and bailiff is more akin to a groundskeeper. Adams is no longer the bailiff, as the position was granted in April to Labour MP Peter Soulsby.
In any case, a point made on Twitter by mgconnor (of iCampaigned) was that Michelle Gildernew, should she be interested in standing for the Irish presidency, as is speculated, would similarly be expected to resign her seat. It was easy for Adams, as it was a near certainty both that he would succeed Arthur Morgan in Louth (he topped the poll) and that Sinn Féin would win the Belfast West bye-election (Paul Maskey won with 70%).
Neither would be true in the case of Gildernew, who is quite unlikely to win, while she won the Fermanagh–South Tyrone seat for Sinn Féin in 2010 by only 4 votes. Will anyone ask whether she should resign as Adams did, or would she respond that it’s equivalent to Gay Mitchell continuing as an MEP while standing? While that could be fair, it won’t always be as easy for Sinn Féin to transfer representatives across the border as between West Belfast and Louth.
A more pressing issue is how any Sinn Féin candidate would be nominated. With 14 TDs and 3 Senators, they are three short of the 20 Oireachtas members which would nominate a candidate. They could appeal to certain members of Fianna Fáil, particularly as they are not running a candidate, and that there are Fianna Fáil senators who owe their seats to Sinn Féin voters. I’m not sure what the relations are now between their former party colleague, Independent TD Thomas Pringle, but he would be a possibility.
Even at the 10% Sinn Féin achieved at the general election in February, it would be 10% more than Fianna Fáil will receive in this election. Add to that Socialist and People Before Profit voters who would be glad of a left-wing anti-bailout candidate, and they would probably reach around 15% at a first reasonable estimate.
Though it might seem the sort of subject I would love to write on and analyse from different directions, I have avoided from the start commentary here on the presidential election. Given my position in Young Fine Gael, any comments on candidates outside the party might be viewed somewhat cynically, and as I did not believe that the contest within the party for the nomination was one which would be won in the blogosphere, it was something I delayed posting here till now.
Having said that much, I do hope Pat Cox secures our party’s nomination, which I’ve made no secret of in comments on Twitter and Facebook. It will surprise few given our common background in the Progressive Democrats, though he left the party in 1994. That is more an indication of a common core set of beliefs. As someone who secured the position of President of the European Parliament in 2002, and without the support of a domestic party, I think he has shown an ability to compete in Europe. It also is important to me that he secured the position because of his leadership of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, the group of modern European liberals. As a general rule, I would be inclined towards ELDR member parties, with clear exceptions such as responsibility for a country’s economic collapse in Fianna Fáil’s case, or tolerance for extremism in the Dutch VVD’s case.
While I understand the frustration that the party would consider an outsider, the presidency is not quite like other political offices determined through the party system, parties have recently at times selected candidates not then an active members or office-holders, but one who represents a particular vision or message a party wishes to promote, as was the case in different ways with Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese.
Of course the other two candidates are current MEPs, so I would not at all understate their experience on the world stage. But even in that context, I believe Pat Cox’s own knowledge and experience are particularly to his credit, and that his candidacy and presidency would promote the idea of modern Ireland competing confidently in the wider world.
I remain quite realistic about his chances, and his chances and those of the other two candidates are not something I believe worth getting into too much this close to the actual result. As a final note of disclosure, my support for him is all the stronger as he is someone I know personally, having worked with him in Ireland for Europe. Therefore, it is really at this personal level, as much as politically, that I wish the very best of luck in tomorrow’s convention.