Presidential election enters Twilight Zone with everything from rail lines and ministerial P45s on offer

Eager presidential hopefuls are promising everything, from rail lines to handing ministers their P45s to dressing up as Hollywood icons to entertain foreign dignitaries.

Presidential election enters Twilight Zone with everything from rail lines and ministerial P45s on offer

Eager presidential hopefuls are promising everything, from rail lines to handing ministers their P45s to dressing up as Hollywood icons to entertain foreign dignitaries.

We have entered the presidential Twilight Zone, where challengers to incumbent Michael D Higgins even want to hand the office of the president over to the deceased for a day if elected. No kidding.

With just under eight weeks before voters decide who will reside in Áras an Uachtaráin until 2025, the race for the presidency, has, in some ways, become farcical. In others, the mixed bag seeking the highest office in the land bring with them an eclectic array of issues to debate in the weeks ahead.

A farmer, journalists, a celebrity impersonator, businessmen, senators, an artist, and a retired airline pilot are among the runners and riders vying for election.

Indeed, it is akin to a grand national and there are plenty of fences to overcome... and that is even before the race properly begins.

There are an estimated 13 potential candidates in the field so far, aside from the incumbent. Unlike the last race in 2011 where party-backed candidates featured strongly, this time the contenders are mainly independents and come from a diverse background, to say the least.

However, it is their promises to voters that are raising eyebrows: Musician Jimmy Smyth says he would fire ministers; former airline worker Patrick Feeney wants a Luas rail line for Galway; and burlesque dancer and ‘CEO’ of the website IrishWhoLovePresidentTrump.com Sarah Louise Mulligan is willing to dress up as Marilyn Monroe when Trump comes to Ireland.

All well and good, but none of them have anything to do with the presidency or, indeed, are powers vested in the office.

The Constitution is very clear. The president’s powers are limited, some might say, almost to ceremonial roles. He or she acts as a representative of the State and a guardian of the constitution, but with a largely non-executive role.

The position is above politics.

The president can raise issues of national importance and even has the power to communicate to or convene a meeting of the Dáil or Seanad over an emergency. Neither option has been tested. Such moves, nonetheless, require the approval of the government of the day.

Legislation must also be signed by the president before becoming law. A president may refer a bill to the Supreme Court for consideration, under Article 26.

Nonetheless, Presiednt Higgins has not referred any bill during his near seven years to date.

Potential candidate Gemma O’Doherty says she would refuse bluntly to sign certain legislation, an act constitutional lawyers claim is not within the power of the president. While a president can refer on bills for scrutiny, they cannot bluntly withhold a new law.

Such intervention can only occur if an act is unconstitutional.

Nonetheless, this procedure is rarely used. Since the enactment of the Constitution in 1937, there have been an estimated 15 such references, the last being under Mary McAleese.

President Higgins has used his term to highlight issues such as housing, the migration crisis, and gambling addiction. This shows the role, while not cutting across the government, can be used to debate and raise important matters. This is probably the most power the president holds: The power to highlight concerns in a non-political manner.

Furthermore, the Taoiseach must keep the president informed of matters of domestic and international policy. This enhances their role as a guardian of our law-making process and as a chief overseas ambassador. These, in the main, are the jobs of the nation’s first citizen.

Certainly, despite the fact that three Dragons’ Den stars and businessmen are now running for the Park, the role of the president is generally not to interface with enterprise and companies, promoting jobs or economic decisions. Any such claims will quickly be put to bed during this campaign and more likely than not by the incumbent himself.

Indeed, it is worth noting that stars here have not always won positions of office or political roles. While we may have had the likes of sporting figures, such as Jack Lynch as taoiseach and Dick Spring as tánaiste, others in more recent times didn’t fare well, such as singer Dana for president.

It remains to be seen if voters will go for television or celebrity status. Either way, the winner can’t promise the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Gallagher plans disabilities initiative

Presidential hopeful Sean Gallagher will today pledge to set up a special initiative to improve the involvement of people with disabilities in jobs in the public and private sectors.

The Dragons’ Den star, who had serious eyesight problems when younger, will promise to have those with disabilities shadow him or officials in Áras an Uachtaráin several times a year if elected.

Mr Gallagher will also discuss the important role of the Defence Forces, especially in the area of overseas peacekeeping.

Mr Gallagher will join other hopefuls seeking nominations at Leitrim County Council today.

Several authorities, including Cork City, are also expected to hear from potential candidates.

Speaking on Dublin City FM yesterday, Fianna Fáil TD John Curran said Mr Gallagher would make a good president. This is despite the parliamentary party agreeing to back incumbent Michael D Higgins.

I think he would [do a good job],” said Mr Curran. “I think the last campaign would have taught him an awful lot, to have come through an experience like that, to have been so close and to see the campaign unwind. The fact that he has come back now, I think he would have observed what Michael D did. I think Michael D was an excellent president.

“I think Sean Gallagher would not enter this race lightly.”

Independent senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh is to decide on whether to join the race this week. He told the Irish Examiner he expects he would get the support of 20 Oireachtas members if he does decide to run.

Michael D Higgins

With the backing of two thirds of people in polls and having won over a million votes in the 2011 presidential election, the former Labour TD and arts minister is in a comfortable position entering the race. This is the danger for the incumbent. It is his presidency to lose.

A native of Galway, Mr Higgins is passionate about the arts, history, human rights, and the migration crisis.

Married to Sabina, the father of four previously lectured in Galway and also speaks Irish and Spanish.

He is the first sitting president to face a re-election contest since Éamon de Valera in 1966.

Sean Gallagher

Businessman and star of RTÉ’s Dragon’s Den, Gallagher, 56, contested the 2011 presidential race.

Refusing to use traditional posters in his campaign, he was on the verge of victory until a disastrous debate on TV where he was accused of being a fundraiser for Fianna Fáil. He finished in second place and was later paid damages by RTÉ over a fake tweet read out during the debate.

Has talked of running an open, transparent campaign, but has refused to talk to the media and did not hold a press conference to announce his bid this time.

He has been married to Trish, his second wife, since 2010.

Joan Freeman

Freeman is the founder of suicide charity Pieta House. She was appointed to the Seanad by former taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2016 and is the chairperson on the committee on mental health.

Aged 60, she opposed the recent proposal to liberalise the country’s abortion laws and was strongly linked to the No campaign.

She has since said that she would be happy to sign the new bill legalising abortion into law as President.

She is the sister of broadcaster Theresa Lowe and aunt to leading No campaigner Maria Steen of the Iona Institute.

She is married to Pat and a mother to four adult children.

Kevin Sharkey

Aged 57, Sharkey is an internationally known artist and political activist.

After suffering an abusive childhood in Donegal, he discovered and developed his passion for art.

In September 2013, Sharkey joined Sinn Féin, citing an affection for Mary Lou McDonald, but he left the party amid unhappiness with then leader Gerry Adams.

In 2016, Sharkey revealed he had been homeless for months, after falling victim to Ireland’s accommodation crisis.

Sharkey said he been living in sheltered accommodation in Dublin city centre for the previous two months, unable to find a place he can afford.

Pádraig Ó Céidigh

The 61-year-old aviation boss turned independent senator is a respected figure in both politics and business.

Born in Conemara in 1957, he was appointed to the Seanad in 2016 by then taoiseach Enda Kenny, having unsuccessfully contested one of the National University of Ireland seats in the Seanad.

He attended NUI Galway before having careers in accountancy, teaching and as a solicitor. He also served on the board of RTÉ.

Ó Céidigh has said he wants the medical records of all candidates released, seen as an attack on Michael D Higgins. He is married to Caitlin and has four children.

Patrick Feeney

A retired Aer Lingus employee, Feeney stood unsuccessfully as an Independent candidate in the 2016 general election in the constituency of Galway West.

However, securing only 22 first-preference votes, he was eliminated on the first count.

He was among the group of aspirant candidates who presented to Waterford City and County Council in a bid to secure their nomination to run.

He told councillors that he wanted to “challenge the status quo”.

Feeney is also a native Irish speaker.

Gavin Duffy

Businessman Gavin Duffy was the first Dragons’ Den star to seek a nomination. He believes there is space to

get on the ballot paper with fellow ‘Dragon’, Sean Gallagher.

Duffy has even remortgaged his house to fund his campaign.

The Drogheda-native has addressed five councils.

The 58-year-old is the former owner of HRM, a large recruitment company. He previously ran LMFM radio, which was sold to UTV.

The entrepreneur has coached taoisigh and businessmen, including Denis O’Brien. He wants to prioritise the young and the elderly.

Liadh Ní Riada

Sinn Féin has committed to fielding a candidate. It is just a question of who. Munster MEP Liadh Ní Riada and Belfast solicitor John Finucane are the names being mentioned, with Ní Riada the hot favourite.

Sinn Féin’s ard comhairle will decide on a candidate at the end of this month, leaving the individual to escape scrutiny before the race is running at full speed.

The late Martin McGuinness won more than 240,000 first- preference votes or almost 14% in 2011, coming third.

Ms Ní Riada, if chosen, could shake up the field, which to date has been dominated by men. Her cultural and Irish background will stand out.

Gemma O’Doherty

The journalist has campaigned on high-profile stories, including on justice, garda, and media issues.

Formerly with the Irish Independent, she is a contributor to Village Magazine and has written about cases such as the disappearance of Mary Boyle, 6, in 1977.

She says that a remedy to fix Ireland is to tackle “the greed and corruption of the tiny elite who continue to destroy it for the majority”.

Ms O’Doherty was unfairly dismissed from the Irish Independent, after 16 years with the newspaper, and won an employment case and court action against her former employer.

Jimmy Smyth

One of the musician’s pledges, if elected, is to sack ministers who are not doing a good job. However, as appealing as it might sound to some, it is not a power that the president enjoys.

The 60-year-old Navan man once turned down Phil Lynott’s offer to join Thin Lizzy. He also says he wants to “stop the rot in this country” and has appealed for support on social media, putting up an online petition.

Nonetheless, he admits his goal is not to win the election but to promote change in society.

The guitarist has received the backing of jazz player Paddy Cole and musician Steve Wickham.

Sarah Louise Mulligan

Mulligan says she would welcome Donald Trump to Áras an Uachtaráin and would do so wearing a Marilyn Monroe outfit, if asked. She later claimed this was a joke.

The 36-year-old founder of IrishWhoLovePresidentTrump.com has said there are thousands more in Ireland that share her views about Trump.

The burlesque performer and pro-life activist made headlines in May when she debated with Amnesty International’s Colm O’Gorman live on TV in the lead-up to the Eighth Amendment referendum.

Peter Casey

The US based-businessman is the founder and CEO of global recruitment firm Claddagh Resources.

Casey, 60, is one of nine children from a Derry family. His recruitment firm, set up in Atlanta in the 1990s, has its base outside Buncrana, Co Donegal. He and his wive Helen have five children. Casey spends only a few weeks a year in Ireland. He failed to win a seat in the Seanad in 2016 after being nominated by employers group Ibec.

The former ‘Dragon’ says the €250,000 presidential salary is “bonkers”. If elected, he would “activate” the diaspora, as well as create a birthright programme.

John Groarke

An independent farmer from Co Roscommon, Groarke is another non-establishment candidate.

He said people “running for these high offices are all very well-paid, most of them, and the rural people of Ireland don’t get a look-in at these jobs”.

The bachelor, 58, from Tulsk, wants to reduce the €30m cost of running the office of President.

He said it is unfair that he has to secure nominations from four local authorities, unlike Michael D Higgins, who is automatic to run again.

“He has privileges and, in a Republic, there should be no privileges. Every man is equal and every woman.”

Marie Goretti Moylan

A former civil servant and volunteer from Atlone, Moyland has worked for the departments of Education, Agriculture and Arts.

A music lover, she is a singer but also plays the tin whistle and the small organ.

In her pitch to councillors, Moylan said she will promote truth, justice, closure, and charity for all citizens.

She said she wants to become an ambassador for Ireland, but especially the Midlands.

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