Ireland presidential election: Voters are offered some bizarre alternatives to the unbeatable Higgins

An exercise in democracy to avoid a coronation quickly became tedious and tiring 

2018 Irish presidential debate highlights

It is the election that almost never was.

Having served as president since 2011, Michael D Higgins enjoys such a level of popularity in Ireland that for a time it seemed a simple show of hands in Dublin's Temple Bar may have been enough to grant him a second term.

But while polls showed a majority wanted him re-elected (anything between 66 and 71 per cent), a majority also wanted him to go through the process of an election, and by deciding to run a candidate, Sinn Féin opened Pandora’s Box and ensured it would happen.

Local councils then nominated four more candidates, including (bizarrely) three businessmen from the Irish version of Dragon’s Den.

Of these, the most entertaining entrant has been Sean Gallagher, a businessman who was on course to win in 2011 before he suffered a spectacular fall from grace in the final days of the campaign, and Higgins got the gig.

This summer, like a mythological creature reawakened after a seven year hibernation, he reappeared to announce he was running again.

When quizzed on why he hadn’t engaged in politics during the interim – namely the referendums on marriage equality and abortion – he explained that he’d been working and starting a family. Things which, presumably, everyone else gallantly put on hold.

A bizarre campaign video in which Gallagher attempted to whip up national pride by invoking Riverdance and historic sporting successes – with all the forced sincerity of a bouncer making a court appearance – was ruthlessly mocked on Twitter. See you in 2025, Sean.

Odd videos were also produced aplenty by Derry born, US-based Peter Casey, who misread the mood of his homeland by launching unusually strong attacks on Higgins – and worse still – on Higgins’ dogs.

Part of what people love about the current presidency is that you get three for the price of one. Where Higgins goes, Bród and Síoda are never far away, and they have attracted their own following by doing incredible things like letting people stroke them, resting their heads on the laps of visitors, and generally being very good boys.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle meet President Higgins' dogs Bród and Síoda during an official visit to Dublin 

Casey repeatedly suggested the taxpayer was picking up their €10,000 grooming bill (which Higgins denied), then, in a move even Trump would have winced at, he criticised the nationality of the dogs – they being Bernese Mountain Dogs, instead of good patriotic Irish dogs like Setters or Kerry Beagles.

Already limping, Casey unloaded a final bullet into his own foot by describing travellers – a protected minority in Ireland – as “basically people camping in someone else’s land.” Hopefully he got himself a good deal on a return flight to Atlanta.

The third Dragon, Gavin Duffy, managed his way through without causing much offence, but didn’t exactly whip up any excitement either. Nevertheless, he should be commended for a surprising review of A Star Is Born, which he offered in one recent interview.

“Lady Gaga is a world class singer,” he said, “convincing and engaging as an actor ... Early Gaga was dominated by the visual and theatrical but A Star is Born, the movie, leaves us in no doubt she is a superstar singer.” He’s not wrong.

Senator Joan Freeman is best known in Ireland for founding the suicide prevention charity Pieta House, and launching the Darkness Into Light walk. She comes across as a general good egg, advocating for mental health issues and the wellbeing of citizens.

Freeman was tagged as being a bit conservative after she admitted voting No in the abortion referendum, and claimed that a trip to the holy shrine at Knock had cured her of eczema – striking fear into the makers of E45.

For their part, Sinn Féin fielded Liadh Ní Riada, a fluent Irish language speaker who serves as one of their MEPs. Her campaign bore all the hallmarks of a traditional political campaign, complete with a big bus with her face on the side, and a strong Instagram Story game.

She rocked the boat slightly by saying she would wear a poppy if elected president – something which is hugely divisive in Ireland, and anathema in the republican circle from which she hails.

In recent days she asked people to remember that this election might not have happened had it not been for Sinn Féin. Considering how it all played out, some read this more like an apology than a call for praise.

So it all comes back to Michael D Higgins.

For the past few months, while the other candidates have provided laughs, bewilderment, uncouth Trumpian soundbites, and grand plans for things the president has no power to actually do, Higgins has stood quietly, growing in stature as the political machine has trudged through the motions.

Irish presidential candidates (L to R) Peter Casey, Sean Gallagher, Liadh Ni Riada, Michael D Higgins, Joan Freeman and Gavin Duffy are pictured with Pat Kenny ahead of the final RTE debate

The main stick with which the other candidates lined up to hit him was his expenses record.

During the RTE debate on Wednesday night, he robustly defended taking a private jet from Dublin to Belfast to deliver a lecture on the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (and no, it wasn’t the outrageous cost of the train). There was no evidence of any wrongdoing, but mostly it was agreed that a rethink of the president's allowance would be welcomed.

As the others postured, bickered and stuttered their way through an exhaustive, downright boring two hour affair, Higgins remained largely silent - an occasional glance to camera almost saying to the Irish people, “Look at this shitshow. Are you happy now?!”

Indeed it may all appear to have been fairly pointless if Higgins is re-elected when voters go to the polls on Friday, but this is a republic where such an exercise in democracy is valued greatly. No monarchs or coronations for us, thank you very much.

That said, if Higgins wanted to hand over the job to one of his dogs when his next term is done, you probably wouldn’t hear many complaints.

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