On Thursday October 27 voters in Ireland--the Republic of Ireland--go to the polls to elect a new president. The presidency in Ireland is largely a ceremonial office devoid of any powers except for deciding on which party to turn to in order to form a government following an election. The presidency was created by the 1937 constitution written by Eamon de Valera. Until 1990 it was largely the property of Fianna Fail to hand out to worthy cultural figures and former senior party politicians. In 1990 Mary Robinson, a human rights lawyer running as an independent with the backing of both the Irish Labour Party and the Workers' Party, took the presidency away from Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail won it back in 1997 but ran Mary McAleese, a Northern nationalist and law professor at Queen's University of Belfast. She is now retiring.
In this election the main candidates have been four: Michael D. Higgins, a poet backed by the Labour Party; Sean Gallagher, a reality show star and former Fianna Fail member running as an independent; Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and number two in Sinn Fein; and David Norris, a former senator and gay rights activist. Norris has been badly damaged by the revelation that he wrote a letter on behalf of a former lover, an Israeli wanted for statutory rape of a Palestinian. He hasn't recovered. Martin McGuinness was off to a strong start but has faltered as victims of the IRA have stalked him and the Irish Independent and the Irish Times newspapers as well as TV questioners have openly challenged his version of his past. A poll from the Irish Times has Gallagher at 40%, Higgins at 25%, and McGuinness at 15%, with the other four candidates making up the remaining 20 percent.
It is doubtful is McGuinness either expected to win when he became a candidate or even wants to win. After all, I think that McGuinness probably relishes the challenge of replacing Peter Robinson as First Minister if Sinn Fein can replace the DUP as the largest party in the North. The candidacy was really about raising Sinn Fein's profile in the Republic and outperforming Fianna Fail.
Sinn Fein has two natural constituencies in the Republic. First, are traditional republicans who were always Fianna Fail supporters and now feel abandoned after Fianna Fail ditched most of its traditional rhetoric about Irish unity as well as Ireland's constitutional claim to the Six Counties of the North during the peace process in the 1990s. They may have stayed with FF during the 2000s, but when the party suddenly imploded as a result of the Irish economic collapse last year they felt free to find a new home. They are particularly prevalent in rural areas and in the border counties along the border with Northern Ireland. The second group are the urban poor who felt left out by the Irish economic boom of the 1990s. They have traditionally voted for the Workers' Party starting in the mid-1980s then most transferred to the Democratic Left when that party split off from the Workers' Party in 1992 and then began to vote for Sinn Fein once the Democratic Left merged with the Labour Party in 1998. Sinn Fein was still under ten seats in the Dail until the 2010 election. Now the question is whether McGuinness has raised the profile of Sinn Fein enough to allow it to surpass Fianna Fail in the next general election.
In American terms Fianna Fail is comparable to the Republicans, Fine Gael (now the party in power) to the right wing of the Democrats and the Labour Party to the left wing of the Democrats. The Labour Party has flirted with Marxism in the past before settling on social democracy of the Western European variety while Fine Gael flirted with social democracy in the 1970s and 1980s before returning to free market principles in the 1990s. Fianna Fail in the past had hegemonic status within the Irish party system based on a unique blend of nationalist rhetoric, free market rhetoric, and cronyism. It remains to be seen whether Sinn Fein can do a comparable job of mixing socialist and nationalist rhetoric (that some have claimed is reminiscent of the parties of the Radical Right in Europe during the 1930s).