Scandal stalks race for Irish presidency

THE campaign to be the ninth president of Ireland has been distinguished by the rattling of skeletons in closets, with two candidates now carrying bruises from old bones that fell out of cupboards and into the glare of the media.
Following a series of controversies, big names have been left trailing in the final week of campaigning before Thursday’s vote, and a relative outsider, Sean Gallagher, has leapfrogged to the top of the list alongside grand old man Michael D. Higgins.
“It has been a nasty and insubstantial campaign and the result is a little like ‘last man standing’,” says Adrian Guelke, professor of comparative politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. “The candidates who have offended the least have got to the top. Michael D. and Sean Gallagher don’t offend lots of people.”
Current President Mary McAleese, a barrister and academic admired for her skilled peacemaking, was re-elected for a second term unopposed seven years ago.
She built bridges with Northern Ireland and arranged an almost penitential visit by the Queen to the republic earlier this year. The Queen laid wreaths at sites memorialising Irish freedom fighters and visited the stadium where the 1920 Bloody Sunday massacre took place.
Mrs McAleese’s predecessor, Mary Robinson, was also a visionary, held in affection for transforming the ceremonial role into one with more warmth and meaning. She emphasised the needs of the marginalised and reached out to the Irish diaspora.
The bar is now set high — possibly too high for two well-known candidates whose campaigns have been tarnished by sexual allegations.
“Dana” Rosemary Scallon is so well known from her singing career that she goes by her stage name. She won a seat in the European Parliament stressing opposition to divorce and abortion and has had two previous tilts at the presidency.
But she is involved in a bitter family row over allegations by her sister, Susan Stein, that a brother abused Mrs Stein’s daughter as a child. Mrs Scallon last week said the allegations had emerged in the context of a court dispute over other matters in 2008 and had now “conveniently” re-emerged. She said she was sure they were malicious and untrue.
In response, Mrs Stein this week hired a libel lawyer. She claimed she had told Mrs Scallon about the alleged abuse when it was first disclosed years ago but Mrs Scallon had advised her to “protect the family name” by not telling others.
“Dana had a very respectable showing last time but she’s in complete meltdown now,” says John Waters, author and columnist for The Irish Times.
David Norris, the first openly gay person elected to public office in Ireland, had been a front-runner. But he withdrew in July after it emerged that in 1997 he wrote a letter to Israeli authorities pleading on behalf of former partner Ezra Yitzhak Nawi, who had been convicted of the statutory rape of a teenage boy.
Mr Waters says: “It’s been watered down as a letter for clemency, but it was a letter in which he misrepresented the situation because he didn’t allude at all to the fact that this was his [former] lover.”
Mr Norris has since re-entered the race and people are divided between those concerned about his judgment and those who see him as hounded by the media.
Still in with a chance is former IRA chief Martin McGuinness, who left his job as deputy chief minister in Northern Ireland, the culmination of his work in the peace process. He has said that the Irish are angry at the way the debt crisis has led to loss of sovereignty to the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
“It is time for a president who will stand up for Ireland and the Irish people,” he said. “Ireland needs a new beginning, and I do new beginnings.”
He has also promised to be president for “the 32 counties” — republican code for a united Ireland, as there are 26 counties in the republic and six in Northern Ireland. It is not clear how he plans to do this.
Waters thinks Mr McGuinness has not stood up well to strong criticism over his paramilitary past, but Professor Guelke thinks those attacks are unfortunate: “The case is being made that he is morally unsuitable because of his past . . . People in [Northern Ireland] hear that, and Unionists will ask why he has been imposed on them. It gives legitimacy to the argument that the power-sharing arrangement shouldn’t be in place.”
On the other hand, both analysts see Gay Mitchell, the Fine Gael candidate, as part of the establishment in a country still furious at politicians for allowing the “Celtic tiger” to shrink to a mewling kitten.
Mary Davis’s performance in polls is lacklustre, but she shares some of the qualities of the past two presidents: she is a woman who emphasises caring and inclusion, her own background being decades of work with disabled people.
Which leaves the new guy and the old guy: Mr Gallagher and Mr Higgins. Professor Guelke says of Mr Higgins: “He’s elegant, intelligent, thoughtful . . . The thing that has counted against him is that he looks old. He does come across as an old man.”
And at 70, he has to convince voters he can maintain his vigour until he is 78. But he remains a front-runner, along with Mr Gallagher.
“The banana skin that’s waiting for Gallagher is his time in Fianna Fail [the main party of the previous government],” says Mr Waters. “But many people have an association with Fianna Fail and don’t regard it as a criminal offence.
“He’s a very charismatic guy. There’s a particular quality of the Irish personality that outsiders recognise: immediately on contact with another person there is a kind of spark, a warmth, instant banter, and an instant capacity to communicate in a very human, almost intimate way. Gallagher has this quality, and people feel they are meeting the real person.”