Irish Presidential Elections: A Short Guide

Ireland’s upcoming Presidential Election, a sleeping story up till now, has become the mainstay of Irish political news in the last few weeks, due largely to the demise of David Norris’ nomination campaign, and the sudden flurry of celebrity candidates: a returning Dana Rosemary Scully, and, today, the (possible, only possible) announcement that Gay Byrne might actually want a go himself.

I’ll have plenty to say on the election closer to the date, especially when candidates have actually been confirmed (technically speaking, no one actually has yet, though four are all but).

For now, well, I’m an historian, so how about some history?

Today’s lesson will be the Never Felt Better crash course in Irish Presidential Election history. Join me as we run through each election, pausing to discuss the frequent mess of the nomination process, and the occasional non-event of the actual electoral process!



Having created the office in the new constitution, De Valera and chums suddenly faced a small bit of a sticky situation regards who should be the first person to actually hold it. There were genuine fears that such an office could be a doorway to dictatorial power (that might sound like alarmist thinking, but this was 1930’s Europe). So, he and Fianna Fail needed someone who didn’t look likely to fill that role, who would give the country a good international face, who was acceptable to the people and other political parties, who had the pedigree and, most interestingly, was a non-Catholic, Dev wanting a President who he could point to as a refutation of the “Rome Rule” thinking.

The choice by Fianna Fail was Douglas Hyde, founder of the Gaelic League and a former Senator. He was Anglican. Admired also by the then leader of the opposition, W.T. Cosgrave, his nomination was easy.

The only other attempted challenge came from Alfred “Alfie” Byrne, an Independent TD and former Mayor of Dublin, but, he became an unfortunate trailblazer as he failed to garner the 20 Oireachtas members needed to gain a nomination.


Was not held, due to their only being one candidate.



Hyde decided not to run for a second term. Fianna Fail nominated Sean T. O’Kelly, then Tanaiste. Initially deciding not to contest, late in the process Fine Gael went with Sean Mac Eoin, a major figure in the Revolutionary IRA and later Free State General. An Independent Republican, Patrick MacCartan, became the first to fail in the Council route, failing to gain support of the four he needed. The former TD, who had quit politics due to disillusionment over the Anglo-Irish Treaty 20 years before, unexpectedly gained the support of 20 Oireachtas members even later then Fine Gael nominated someone.


On paper, O’Kelly won in a landslide, taking 49.5% of the first preferences. However, while he got over the top in the second count, most of the transfers from the third placed MacCartan went to Mac Eoin. This showed the level of unpopularity the long running Fianna Fail government was dealing with, and the potential rewards of opposition party co-operation. It is generally considered that the coalition that seized power from Fianna Fail in 1948 began at this time.



O’Kelly was nominated unopposed, following a quiet first term. Only noted satirist, Eoin “The Pope” O’ Mahony attempted to run against him, and failed.


The second that did not take place.



Under pressure from members of the Fianna Fail party, De Valera, now 76, left the Dail and choose to go for the more hands off position of the President. Fine Gael put Mac Eoin up against him again.


As expected, De Valera took it easily, winning 56.3% of the vote. The result was largely seen as putting Dev out to pasture in a low-power statesmen role.



De Valera, 84, ran for his second term, going for a world record as oldest head of state. Widely expected to walk it, many were surprised that Fine Gael bothered to put a candidate up against him at all, which they did so in the form of  Laois-Offaly TD, Tom O’ Higgins.


Whether it was the age factor (O’ Higgins was 50), the lacklustre campaign ran by Fianna Fail (under none other than Charles Haughey, who came in for heavy flak from Dev), or just public tiredness with the aging figurehead, O’ Higgins came within an electoral inch of a major shock. Little more than 10’000 votes, 1% of the total, were between them. Dev got his second term, but only just.



Fianna Fail failed to get Frank Aiken, another revolutionary period stalwart, to run. Instead, former Tanaiste and long serving TD, Erskine H. Childers got the nod. His opponent was the now deputy leader of Fine Gael, Tom O’ Higgins, widely expected to win on his second try.


Childers wowed Irish voters with a vibrant campaign and O’Higgins missed out again, this time by nearly 4% of the vote.



After Childers’ untimely death of a heart attack, the major parties of the Dail formed a secret agreement to nominate his widow, Rita, and elect her unopposed. However, this was undone due to a bizarre political gaffe by Fine Gael TD Tom O’ Donnell, who announced publically she would be the fifth President of Ireland, having misheard a question from a journalist. O’Donnell was partially deaf, but his mistake was interpreted as an attempt by Fine Gael to claim sole credit for Rita Childers scheduled election, so Fianna Fail pulled out of the deal, much to her disappointment. Instead, Fianna Fail were able to get the parties to rally around Cearbhall O’ Dalaigh, former Chief Justice and Attorney General, an Independent candidate


Nominated alone, O’ Dalaigh became the third President elected without a vote.



O’Dalaigh resigned the office following a dispute with Fine Gael’s Paddy Donegan, then Minister for Defence, who publically insulted him in front of army personnel, but received a positive confidence motion from the Dail. Fianna Fail was suffering its own factional rifts at the time, and this came to the fore in the nomination choices, as Jack Lynch proposed former Minister and European Commissioner Patrick Hillary while Charles Haughey proposed Donegal TD Joseph Brennan. Haughey’s time was yet to come, so Hillary was easily nominated. The other parties, unwilling to expand the debacle that Donegan had caused, opted not to challenge.


The fourth to gain the office without a vote.



After a quiet term (though, subsequent revelations showed that several private events of importance had occurred), Hillary was convinced to seek re-election. With the other parties not wanting to waste their time, he ran unopposed.


Hillary became the only President, to date, who never faced a popular vote at some stage while serving two full terms.



Fianna Fail went with Brian Lenihan, then Tanaiste and Minister of Defence, despite a late challenge from John Wilson, another Minister. Fine Gael, after failing to convince more likely candidates like former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, choose little known SDLP member Austin Currie. The Labour party, running a candidate for the first time, went with a former Senator and Professor of Law, Mary Robinson.

Lenihan was the odds-on favourite, with Robinson being seen as an unknown and Currie being considered too politically inexperienced.


The Lenihan campaign went from catastrophe to catastrophe, as it emerged he had tried to pressure the previous President to make decisions in favour of Fianna Fail (a complicated story for another time). Further, a fellow Minister, Padraig Flynn, launched an infamous attack on Robinson, accusing her of using her family as an electoral tool, and of being a bad wife and mother. Predictably, his attack backfired, triggering a dispute with Fianna Fail’s then coalition partners the Progressive Democrats, and leading many female voters to pick Robinson out of sympathy.

Lenihan won 44.1% of the first preferences, but Robinson beat Currie into second. On the second count, she took the majority of Currie’s transfers, and thus became Ireland’s first female President.



Robinson, despite having arguably the most popular Presidency in Irish history, decided not to run for re-election, wanting to focus on work with the UN.

Fianna Fail had a three-way race for a nomination, between long serving members Albert Reynolds (a former Taoiseach) and Michael O’Kennedy (former Finance and Foreign Affairs Minister. But also included was a former RTE journalist and Pro Vice-Chancellor of Queens College Belfast, Mary McAleese. Due to a dispute with then Taoiseach and party leader Bertie Ahern, who unofficially backed McAleese, Reynolds lost out in humiliating circumstances. After two rounds of voting McAleese took the nomination.

Of the opposition parties, Fine Gael ran Mary Bannoti, an MEP, who saw off the challenge of Avril Doyle, a Senator. Labour, Democratic Left and the Greens nominated Adi Roche, a civil rights campaigner. Former Eurovision winner Dana Rosemary Scanlon became the first candidate nominated by councils, soon followed by former Garda and victim’s rights campaigner Derek Nally.


In a lacklustre election campaign, Roche showed a poor understanding of the office, Scanlon appealed only to the far-right, and Nally’s candidacy failed to impress. In one of the lowest turnouts in Irish electoral history, McAleese received 45.2% of the vote to Banotti’s 29.3, winning the Presidency on the second count.



After an unspectacular, but popular first term, McAleese sought re-election. One by one, the other major parties choose to either support her, or just not run a candidate, not wanting to waste the financial resources in an election campaign that would be next to impossible to win, McAleese being among the countries most popular politicians at the time. No independent candidates were able to secure a nomination.


The sixth Presidential election, of 12, which did not require an actual vote.

Coming at some point, the best moments of the Irish Presidency! How Douglas Hyde was thrown out of the GAA, how implying the commander-in-chief is a traitor is a bad idea, how Patrick Hillary secretly became the champion of constitutional common sense and what Mary Robinson actually did!

This entry was posted in Clusterf**k To The Aras, History, Ireland, Politics, Presidential Election 2011 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Irish Presidential Elections: A Short Guide

  1. David Kirwan says:

    Thinking about the current crop of potential candidates: Gaybo, Dana, Norris.
    A Great TV presenter, A nice Singer, A relatively popular political figure known more for his sexual orientation and happy demeanour than for anything else.

    All worthy people in their own way, but the nature of the candidates reflects on the nature of the role. Is it that the postion of President wields no power or that we have no statesmen not preceived as corrupt?

    On way or another, the list of candidates defines the role. And the role looks more and more irrelevant..

  2. Ciaran Mac Aodha-O Cinneide says:

    It would seem that the southern-Irish media have inserted themselves into the Criminal Justice System somewhere above the Supreme Court and the European Court of Appeal, by insistently and persistently levelling allegations against one particular candidate, without a shred of evidence whatsover. This Mc Carthyist tendency in a highly influential (but apparently lowly accountable) media serves to pervert the course of democracy by incitement to hatred against such candidate. This is unacceptable in a democratic state. Electors should be advised that they are being drip-fed a highly sanitised version of the reality of the calibre of their candidates, with the apparent intention of influencing the outcome so as to preserve the status quo. Vote for those whom you believe to have been most calumnied and detracted the most, as follows: Mc Guinness, Martin – 1. Scallon, Dana Rosemary – 2. Norris, Senator David – 3. Davis, Mary – 4. Gallagher, Sean – 5. Higgins. Michael D. – 6. Mitchell, Gay – 7.

    • steoller says:

      I don’t believe that the perceived fairness of interviews is a good means of determining who should be president. Granted, the questions that McGuinness was asked during the Primetime debate were put to him tactlessly and unprofessionally, but the underlying concerns behind them were valid and needed to be addressed. It could have been done much better.

      That said, McGuinness’ camp could deal with the aftermath better. They could campaign on his strengths as a negotiator and community leader, as well as his experience in government as an education minister and deputy head of government.

      Instead his supporters are whining about unfair questions and victimisation. They are being sore losers while the race has yet to finish.
      Stop complaining and start campaigning.

  3. Ciaran Mac Aodha-O Cinneide says:

    Before you vote in the election for the nineth president of this third republic, consider the following:-
    (i) How objective do you believe press coverage of the presidential campaign has been to date?
    (ii) How objective can media presenters be who are very generously paid from publicly-funded license fees administered though government agencies?
    (iii) How independent are journalists in the print media to write what they witness if to do so would prejudice their employment, and is this a sign of the times we live in?
    (iv) Is press coverage of all candidates fair both quantitatively and qualitatively, or are more “exotic” candidates getting more negative publicity than their more ‘suitable’ contenders?
    (v) Are polls and surveys consistently quoted accurate measures of what the public feel, or are they highly selective use of such instruments designed to massage public opinion and construct an outcome desired by their users?
    (vi) Have any of the candidates (or the parties to which they are aligned), been involved in any dirty tricks in the campaign to date/ If so, how would this reflect on their perception of the office?
    (vii) Is onbjective press coverage being refracted by a spill-over effect of state censorship of the Troubles for so long, leaving an historical lacuna in the consciousness and congnition of journalists.

    • HandsofBlue says:

      Please don’t spam my comments section with that kind of copy/paste stuff.

      Also, as the above said, quit whining about the press and campaign more. Also, do honest objectivity a favour and just say your a McG supporter, it’s not a crime.

      • Ciaran Mac Aodha-O Cinneide says:

        Fair enough, Handsof Blue! It may not be a crime to be a McG… supporter, but with the scale of press hysteria, one has to weigh ones words carefully. Also, when one is besieged by a patently obvious reactionary media preoccupied with a negatie past, defending oneself against such naked hostility exhausts the time and energy to showcasre ones positive present. Perhaps this is the objective of press exercise. The question remains: Is there really a free press/speech in the increasingly unfree state. Government controlls the media. Sir Anthony controlls the press. I rest my case.

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