Even the Virgin Mary won't get Dana elected

Alan Murdoch weighs up the Irish singer's presidential chances
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Irish political parties are closing ranks to prevent ex-Eurovision Song Contest winner Dana turning the forthcoming presidential election into another bitter holy war over abortion.

Dana's bizarre entry into the race to succeed President Mary Robinson followed pressure on the singer, now an Alabama housewife and US religious TV broadcaster, from a right-wing Dublin-based religious group.

Getting on the ballot paper at all will be as big a struggle as winning the election for the 44-year-old Derry-born vocalist, (real name Rosemary Brown) who won the 1970 Eurovision at the age of 18, and still speaks in the child-like tones than made her a minor legend 27 years ago.

Dana needs the backing of at least four local councils or 20 members of the 166-strong Dail and 60-member Senate to become a candidate. Irish political parties insist Dana will not be nominated by either house, and see little possibility of local councils providing enough support.

Behind the slightly comic prospect of a candidate with the "All Kinds of Everything" appeal lie bitter objections to the methods used by Irish pro-life campaigners. Dail politicians of all shades have become angry at being hounded into stating their anti-abortion credentials under threat from pickets of their offices and homes and with lurid propaganda arriving in the post displaying photos of aborted foetuses.

The pro-lifers' attempt to conscript a "glam" candidate reflects how their movement has failed to popularise its appeal. This month they even failed to get their most heavyweight ideologue, Professor William Binchy of Trinity College, Dublin, elected to the Senate.

Dana made no secret last week that abortion was her big issue and "probably the most important reason" for her candidacy. "I am without any hesitation absolutely pro-life. I have never changed my stance on that in all my years of public life," she declared.

Arguing "there are only two ultimate controls in any country. There is either God or there is government" she said God must take precedence. She quotes approvingly from the preamble to de Valera's "beautiful" 1937 Irish constitution: "In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, in our final end, all actions both of men and States."

She is less happy about changes in that constitution made by referendum since 1992, allowing freedom of abortion information and travel for women and limited civil divorce.

Yet many of her arguments on quality of life and social order are made with reference not to Ireland but America, where she has lived with her husband and four children since 1990. There she presents a programme on a religious television station, based in Birmingham, Alabama.

She believes individual rights in the US "tend to outweigh the social order. Anyone you meet in America will tell you life is worth nothing. The breakdown in their society is directly related to the breakdown in the family." Among Dana's backers is the curious figure of TCG O'Mahony, an elderly Dublin solicitor, who has urged a "national prayer crusade" to get her elected. He is targeting 37 Fianna Fail and 23 Fine Gael parliamentarians, hoping optimistically that they might nominate her.

Mr O'Mahony is best known for a bizarre row in Dublin courts over his attempts to erect a basilica for rosary prayers to the Virgin Mary in the middle of O'Connell St. When he lost he carried on the worship over a loudspeaker while driving up and down O'Connell St with the Virgin Mary statue strapped to the roof of his pink Mercedes.

Mr O'Mahony leads a small conservative group, the Christian Community Centre, which brings out around 50 followers, devoted to the cult of the Virgin, for major religious events.

On Thursday Dana appeared to realise that she was acquiring some less- than-helpful support, saying she was "very angry" with backers (presumed to refer to Mr O'Mahony) who indicated to the media that she was standing when in fact she was still against the idea.

She also disowned moves, attributed to the small pro-life Christian Solidarity group, to have her campaign launched at the giant Knock shrine (the site of an alleged vision of the Virgin in 1879) in County Mayo.

The priest in charge at Knock, Father Dominic Grealy, said he welcomed Dana as a visitor and singer, but was not willing to let the shrine be taken over for party political campaigns.

Whatever the singer may believe possible, Dublin's political world is in no doubt that the Irish Presidency is John Hume's for the taking. The 60-year-old SDLP leader, undecided about standing, is considering his position over the next fortnight. "He would walk it," said one source.

Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, 64, says he will run regardless of Mr Hume. But he received a thumbs-down last week when his own Fianna Fail party's director of elections, PJ Mara, said Mr Hume was the "best candidate on offer" - a comment implying Mr Reynolds is about to be pushed overboard.

Early opinion polls suggested Mr Hume has 42 per cent backing against 20 per cent for Mr Reynolds. The poll itself is set for 30 October, with nominations closing at the end of September.

Even if by some miracle Dana did get on the ballot paper, a religious anti-abortion candidate, even with a telegenic Eurovision gloss, will have a narrow appeal and limited hope of winning transfers in the PR vote. Mary Robinson, though eventually the winner in 1990, got just 38.9 per cent of first preferences and was elected only after pulling in enough second preferences to overtake Brian Lenihan, who beat her on the first count with 44.1 per cent.

Dana's mission may indeed be to urge Irish people away from the tendencies she sees across the Atlantic. It is much less clear that she knows the state she hopes to lead with anything like the same certainty.