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Thursday 30 November 2023 Dublin: 1°C
Sam Boal via
Race for the Áras

'Would you tell us if you were in a secret organisation?' The race for the Áras stumbles on

There may be trouble ahead.

IT’S ALL JUST a bit odd, really.

Watching someone out of Dragon’s Den being asked if he’d disclose if he was a member of a secret sect isn’t something you see every day. But then again this is Ireland and this is the race for the Aras – and we haven’t even properly started yet. 

But that’s what actually happened at Kildare County Council yesterday afternoon as four prospective presidential candidates made presentations to get on the ballot.

Around 40 or so local reps entered their chamber to hear presentations by four people; Gavin Duffy, Senator Joan Freeman, musician Jimmy Smyth and artist Kevin Sharkey. 

Each had previously made their pitches to other councils – made the same speeches hoping what they say might ring true to the right people. 

In order to get on the ballot, candidates need the support of four councils or 20 members of the Oireachtas.

Gavin Duffy

Gavin Duffy was first up.

He is running a campaign based on five separate pillars – youth, elder care, diversity, respect and working together and he’s so invested that he let us know that he’s remortgaged his house to fund his campaign.

Duffy was as you expected – it was a polished performance – it was professional if not a tad underwhelming. He also managed to bat away questions about his links to media mogul Denis O’Brien and also said that he would declare, if his bid to get on the ballot was successful, if he belonged to any secret organisation. (He said he didn’t.)

Questioned on his business links, Duffy said that in 20 years of business, he has only been in the employ of Denis O’Brien or any of the businesses he owns for the sum total of 40 hours. He was also asked about corruption. Yes, there is corruption, Duffy said, but he added he’d rather talk about all the good that the people of Ireland are doing. 

Speaking of what he’d actually do if he became president, Duffy said he’d call for the establishment of an “Ireland International Youth Corps which our young people aged between 18 and 23 could join to serve their community at home for three months and then volunteer overseas in developing parts of the world”.

Duffy even had his own fancy booklets handed out to every councillor – every glossy flip of the page a reminder that this buck means business.

And just like that he was gone, a firm shake of the hand with the next contestant; Senator Joan Freeman. 
90417865_90417865Joan Freeman at this year's Darkness Into Light walk.Source: graphy: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Joan Freeman

The senator, who founded Pieta House, is campaigning for more focus on the mental health of the nation.

But she couldn't resist having a dig at her rival before she kicked off in earnest. 

Freeman said she "really" has links to Kildare - her mother being from the town. Duffy had earlier said that he had close ties to Kilare having being born there before moving to Meath. 

Freeman made an impassioned speech declaring that her presidency would be one of compassion and kindness and would call for a greater number of resources for mental health. 

She said she wants to siphon some of the presidential salary to create a system similar to Britain’s OBE/MBE scheme. She said that that money would best be used to celebrate the volunteers who “work so tirelessly” for their communities. 

Freeman also faced the same question about how she intends on funding her campaign if she is successful in getting on the ballot - taking another sneaky dig at the now absent dragon. 

She said that “sadly for me, I can’t remortgage my home – it’s mortgaged to the hilt. What I am doing is hoping that people will back me and donate to get me across that line".

Councillors asked the senator how, as someone with a huge amount of empathy and compassion, Freeman would get on with other world leaders like Trump. 

The senator responded firmly; "I'd be able to take Trump on." Cue laughter, applause. She then relinquished the podium to make way for a different kind of potential candidate. 
jimmyJimmy Smyth performing.Source: Facebook

Jimmy Smyth

Jimmy Smyth is a lecturer and musician. He doesn't look like a president but that's the whole point it seems. 

Wearing a brown leather jacket and clutching a satchel, Smyth arrived to the podium - people hadn't a clue what he was going to say - sometimes it appeared he didn't know either. 

But despite a shaky start, Smyth managed to describe the Ireland he wants - a place where the arts are respected and where families don't have to go to food banks to survive. 

He also spoke about the hidden homeless and cited that Ireland is a place where people could find themselves homeless in two months - "a bit like me I suppose", Smyth said, a potential insight into one of the reasons he's running his campaign. 

The guitarist described how he was being described a negative person - he says he isn't and that he has "his finger on the pulse of the social zeitgeist".

He said that Ireland had become a state where "bankers and developers are given VIP status instead of the poets and dreamers". He continued by saying that "there is something rotten in our republic" when food banks and soup kitchens are in high demand, that we've been "saddled with a debt and have rewarded crookedness".

As he was being questioned by the councillors whose votes he was looking to secure, Smyth said something which summed up this race so far. It was blunt. It was searing and it was true. 

He said:

What would I do about the homelessness crisis as president? Nothing, I suppose. I can't. I haven't the power. I'd just have to raise awareness.

 Smyth intends to keep travelling around the councils in a bid to get on the ballot. 
File Photo Internationally famous Irish artist Kevin Sharkey has been homeless for months, after falling victim to Ireland's accommodation crisis. Sharkey - whose fans include Kate Moss and the late Whitney Houston - was the darling of the art world and mKevin SharkeySource:
Kevin Sharkey 

The Ireland artist Kevin Sharkey wants to cultivate is one of gratitude and kindness. 

The controversial potential candidate, who has felt the ire of Twitter mobs for his support of British far right leader Tommy Robinson among others, is a confident man. He communicates his message superbly - he's charismatic and truly believes that he can be the next president of Ireland. 

Not only does he think he can win the election, he believes that he will be one of the best presidents Ireland has ever had. 

Sharkey detailed the horrific abuse he both witnessed and experienced at the hands of the Catholic Church. He told a particularly harrowing story of being sent back to an orphanage by his family when he was 12 years old. When he walked back into the orphanage, he said he witnessed a Christian Brother molesting a young boy in full view of the other boys. 

Sharkey said he will always remember the faces of the abused boys two brothers as they watched their younger brother get molested. It was at this moment, Sharkey recalled, that he knew the difference between good and evil - something he said he carries to this day. Sharkey said that the early foundation of his moral compass is one of the reasons which make him a suitable candidate.

As mentioned earlier, Sharkey is no stranger to controversy. His support of Donald Trump has also ruffled a few feathers. His reaction when this question was posed to him? He said he doesn't support Trump, he supports democracy and that people shouldn't give out and bay for political blood "just because your side lost".

He also said he was defending democracy when he backed Tommy Robinson - an anti-Muslim activist who was recently jailed, and subsequently released on appeal, for contempt of court.

Despite these blips, Sharkey put in a solid performance in front of a sometimes hostile crowd.

Whether he gets the backing of the councils he needs remains to be seen but one thing is for sure, Sharkey is backing himself. 

Yesterday proved a number of things to me; this race is only starting and there's going to be plenty more twists, turns and tangles before we know who the next president is. 

One thing we found out for sure though: this race is going to be gas. 

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