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The manner in which Gemma O'Doherty's candidacy was railroaded reinforces her main arguments

Political power in Ireland is held entirely in the hands of a small elite, who govern largely in their own interest. The rest of us are on the outside looking in, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

WHEN GEMMA O’DOHERTY announced her candidacy for the Irish presidency, I was intrigued.

I didn’t know an awful lot about her, but what I did know, I was impressed by.

She is an outspoken critic of corruption in Ireland. In 2013, she was made compulsorily redundant by The Irish Independent and later settled a suit for wrongful dismissal. Her dismissal came about after she wrote an article about the then-garda commissioner Martin Callinan having penalty points wiped from his licence. She had a Pulse file to that effect in her possession, but to make sure that he was the same person, she went to visit his home.

In the immediate days after declaring her intention to seek office, there seemed to be considerable support for O’Doherty on social media.

However, like a lot of people, I suspect, I was put off by her comments about Veronica Guerin’s murder.

Claiming the Irish state murdered Guerin made O’Doherty appear not as a brave truth-teller, but as someone who is perhaps not presidential material after all.

Yet the manner in which her candidacy has been railroaded since has been nothing short of shameful.

Indeed, it reinforces one of the main arguments O’Doherty has raised both in her work as a journalist and as a presidential candidate: that political power in Ireland is held entirely in the hands of a small elite, who govern largely in their own interest. The rest of us are on the outside looking in.

Our rights

Every Irish citizen over the age of 35 has a right to run for the Irish presidency.

Obviously, it is a right most of us will never even think of exercising.

Obviously, there has to be a limit on the number of names that can appear on the ballot.

But it is still a right, and one that should be respected.

In 2015, the Irish electorate defeated a proposal to allow people under 35 run for president. But this election year has demonstrated why those who fretted about the prospect of someone in their 20s becoming president had nothing to fear. As we have seen, it is one thing to declare you want to be president, and something else entirely to get your name on the ballot.

There are only three ways an Irish citizen can appear on the ballot. One is for a president or former president to nominate themselves. One is to be nominated by 20 members of the Oireachtas. The final one is to be nominated by four local councils.

The problem with this system is that it facilitates people with established political connections becoming presidential candidates, and leaves those outside that circle fighting an uphill battle to even be considered. That is exactly how this presidential race shaped up.

The message coming from our ballot paper is clear: only people with political ties or wealth need apply.

There is nothing wrong with politicians or business leaders seeking the office of president. But the contest shouldn’t be a closed shop to people outside the establishment.

Indeed, one imagines many Irish people would welcome a competitive candidate with outsider credentials.

That is why the decision of numerous local authorities not to nominate any candidate for the presidency verged on the disgraceful. Even if the councils don’t think the remaining prospective candidates have any chance of success, a broader range of options on polling day is a positive thing for a democratic society. This is especially important when, as things currently stand, exactly half of our candidates come from the same TV show.

What 2018 has shown us is that Irish presidential elections have changed forever.

In years past, Michael D Higgins would undoubtedly have been re-elected unopposed.

But, for a variety of reasons, this is no longer the case.

For the foreseeable future, it looks certain that contested presidential elections, even with a returning incumbent, will be the new normal.

Given that, there must be reform in how presidential candidates are chosen for the ballot.

On Friday, South Dublin County Council declined to nominate any of the four people who sought their support: Gemma O’Doherty, Marie Goretti Moylan, John O’Hare and Sarah Louise Mulligan.

I honestly don’t know anything about Moylan or O’Hare. I probably wouldn’t vote for Gemma O’Doherty. Frankly I would be appalled if Mulligan appeared on the ballot. But all four deserve an opportunity to present themselves as serious candidates to the Irish people.

If our current system is skewed towards only nominating people with connections to the establishment, then change needs to be made.

One option would be to mandate that all local authorities must nominate a candidate, and cannot nominate someone whose nomination is already secure. This would ensure a wider pool of candidates, while still keeping the field reasonably limited. However, this system would continue to favour members of the political establishment over those outside it.

A second possibility would be to allow people to place a deposit to be included on the ballot, as is the case with elections for the Dáil. The deposit required to be a candidate in a Dáil election is €500, but for obvious reasons, a more substantial one (say €20,000) would be necessary. The deposit would not be returned if the candidate failed to secure a certain percentage of first preference votes. While this might allow rich candidates the opportunity to simply buy a spot, it would at least offer a pathway to candidates to put themselves on the ballot.

The third option would be to allow candidates appeal directly to the people. Under the constitution of the Irish Free State in 1922, a referendum could be triggered if 75,000 people signed a petition demanding it. This provision was never acted upon and was dropped from the new constitution of 1937. However, the idea could be repurposed for presidential elections. Any candidate who could collect a certain number of signatures in support of their candidacy would automatically be placed on the ballot.

It may be that the presidential election of 2018 is already a foregone conclusion. But now is an excellent time to reflect on how future races might be shaped, and more importantly, who gets to contest them.

Caoimhín De Barra is Assistant Professor of History at Gonzaga University in Washington.

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

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