- - Wednesday, October 26, 2011

DUBLIN Ireland has never seen a presidential election quite like it: a reality-TV star, a poet, a former terrorist, a conservative pop singer and a gay-rights activist all campaigning for a position with no real power.

“It’s the campaign of the seven dwarfs racing around the country addressing television cameras,” said David Farrell, professor of politics at University College Dublin. “You’re voting for an office that’s virtually powerless.”

Polls will open Thursday with seven candidates vying for Ireland’s highest constitutional office. Executive authority in Ireland resides with the Cabinet; the president serves only as the head of state.

Even so, the popular two-term outgoing president, Mary McAleese, is credited with pushing along the peace process that brought an end to bloody civil conflict in Northern Ireland in 1998.

This time, the big issue is what Ireland should do to recover from its economic crash, a difficult topic to address for a would-be president lacking real influence in policymaking.

Opinion polls have been volatile, but show the front-runner as independent candidate Sean Gallagher, star of “Dragons’ Den,” a reality-TV show about business opportunities. Polls suggest that Mr. Gallagher will win 38 percent to 40 percent of the vote.

Mr. Gallagher has presented himself as an “Everyman” candidate, and his message has been job creation. His words have been well-received despite the revelation that he was once a member of the centrist Fianna Fail (Soldiers of Destiny) political party.

Fianna Fail, which had governed 61 of the past 79 years, was roundly defeated in March’s elections, dropping from 71 to 20 seats in parliament. The party was widely accused of economic mismanagement and was so humiliated in the last election that it did not field a candidate this time.

But his association with Fianna Fail apparently hadn’t hurt Mr. Gallagher until Monday. That was when it was revealed that Mr. Gallagher received a $6,900 check in 2009 from a business on behalf of Fianna Fail, a fact he previously denied.

It is not clear how the revelation will affect his campaign.

“He wasn’t resonating at the start of the campaign, he was just this ‘Dragons’ Den’ person, and now he’s the one to beat,” Mr. Farrell said of Mr. Gallagher.

Coming second in polls, with 26 percent, is poet and former government minister Michael Higgins, who represents the center-left Labor Party, the junior partner in Ireland’s coalition government. At 70, he is the oldest candidate.

An early top performer in the polls, David Norris is a gay-rights campaigner who sued his homeland in the European Court of Human Rights in 1988 to force Ireland to decriminalize homosexuality.

Mr. Norris, who has said repeatedly that he stands unashamedly for the liberal agenda, was an early favorite, but now is polling between 6 percent and 10 percent.

His campaign was hurt by the revelation that he wrote several letters to Israel’s government and courts to plead for leniency for his former lover, Ezra Nawi, who had been convicted of the statutory rape of a Palestinian boy.

This followed the surfacing of a 2002 magazine interview in which Mr. Norris said there was “something to be said” for “classic pedophilia, as practiced by the Greeks, for example, where it is an older man introducing a younger man or boy to adult life.”

Mr. Norris, who has served in parliament for 25 years, said his remarks had been taken out of context and has complained of a concerted effort to damage his credibility as a candidate.

Sinn Fein’s candidate, Martin McGuinness, also has been making waves.

Mr. McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader, is now deputy first minister of the British-administered Northern Ireland state. His bid for the presidency of the Republic of Ireland is widely seen as part of Sinn Fein’s long-term strategy to build support for uniting the island as a single republic. Opponents and commentators have harped on Mr. McGuinness’ violent past.

But Danny Morrison, a novelist and former director of publicity for Sinn Fein, says criticism of Mr. McGuinness is hypocritical and that almost all of Ireland’s post-independence political leaders had been IRA members.

“All of them are secure in their position in society because of what people did between 1919 and 1921,” Mr. Morrison said, referring to the IRA campaign for independence from Britain and subsequent civil war.

“What they’re really saying is, ‘It’s OK for your grandfathers [to fight for independence], but not you.’ If the criteria they’re applying to McGuinness had applied to [those in] post-independence government, the country would have been ungovernable.”

Polling between 13 percent and 17 percent, Mr. McGuinness is expected to finish third, which would represent a victory for a party once considered a pariah owing to its connection to the now-disbanded IRA terrorist group.
Meanwhile, Gay Mitchell, who represents the ruling conservative Fine Gael (Family of the Irish) party, is trailing badly.
A noted conservative Catholic and pro-life campaigner as well as a pro-European Union voice, Mr. Mitchell has failed to capitalize on his party’s surge to power in March’s general election, and polls place him in fifth place, with 6 percent.
Other hopefuls are “Dana” Rosemary Scallon, a 1970s pop singer who is campaigning on a pro-life and anti-EU ticket, and Mary Davis, managing director of Special Olympics Europe and Eurasia.

Ms. Scallon’s campaign has been dogged with controversies, adding to what is termed in political circles as “the soap-opera-like nature” of the election.

She first denied allegations against a “family member,” but refused to identify the allegations or the relative. It later emerged that the charges had to do with the alleged sexual abuse of her niece, who lives in Iowa, by her brother. Her niece’s mother, Ms. Scallon’s sister, had accused the candidate of covering up the incident.

Later, Ms. Scallon’s car narrowly avoided careering off a road because of a flat tire, and her husband suggested it may have been an assassination attempt. “What were they trying to do — injure us or murder us?” said Damien Scallon.

Irish police officials said Monday that they had ruled out that scenario.

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