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!