The Brainstorm Long Read: here's a miscellany of what happened when Ireland previously went to the polls to elect a president

Just over 80 years ago, Douglas Hyde was elected Ireland’s first president. Hyde was the only candidate nominated for the office and was thus declared elected. Undoubtedly, the winner of the 2018 Irish presidential election will have faced more hurdles and a more competitive route to Áras an Uachtaráin than An Craoibhin Aoibhinn, Ireland’s first poet President.  

The number of times we've elected a president

Including this election, Ireland has had 14 presidential elections.  On six occasions, there has only been one candidate nominated and thus deemed elected. This was the case with Hyde in 1938, Sean T. O’Kelly in 1952, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh in 1974, Patrick Hillery in 1976 and 1983 and Mary McAleese in 2004. 

From RTÉ Archives, Charlie Bird reports on the election of Mary McAleese in 1997

Where there has been a contested election, the most common form of contest has been a binary election. This has occurred on three occasions. In the 1959 Presidential election, Fianna Fail’s Eamon de Valera defeated Fine Gael’s General Sean MacEoin. In 1966, de Valera, again nominated by Fianna Fail, defeated Fine Gael’s Tom O’Higgins. In 1973, Fianna Fail’s Erskine Childers defeated Tom O’Higgins.  

The number of names on the ballot paper

The electorate in 2018 had a choice of six candidates (Peter Casey, Gavan Duffy, Joan Freeman, Sean Gallagher, Michael D. Higgins and Liadh Ni Riada) on the ballot paper. However, in terms of candidate numbers, this is not Ireland’s most competitive presidential election. This distinction belongs to 2011 when there were seven candidates were on the ballot paper. In 1997, five candidates were on the ballot paper. Prior to this, the most candidates on a presidential ballot paper was three, in both 1945 and 1990.  

The county council route to the ballot paper

The trend towards larger fields of candidates in modern presidential elections is explained by the increased willingness of county councils to bestow a nomination on prospective candidates. This power was actually first exercised in 1945 when an Independent Republican, Pat McCartan, secured a nomination from four county councils, thus, ensuring, his name appeared on the ballot paper. McCartan’s candidacy impinged on what would have been a two-horse between Fianna Fail’s Sean T. O’Kelly and Fine Gael’s General Seán Mac Eoin. McCartan polled very respectably securing just short of 20 percent of the vote.  His presence in the race prevented O’Kelly from winning on the first count and McCartan also took votes from Fine Gael.  

As Irish politics has become increasingly fragmented post the recession, councillors have flexed their muscles and availed of their nomination power

The dominant position that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael held in Irish politics from 1945 on, particularly in the field of local government, ensured that the respective HQs of both parties saw it in their best interests not to allow independent candidates enter the field by way of a council nomination. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael councillors were regularly instructed to follow their party whip in not facilitating the nomination of independent candidates.  It was not until 1997 that another independent candidate secured a nomination via the county councils when both Dana Rosemary Scallon and Derek Nally won the support of four county councils.  

As Irish politics has become increasingly fragmented post the recession and the dominant position of the big two of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael has ebbed, councillors have flexed their muscles and availed of their nomination powers. In 2011, four candidates were nominated by way of the councils (Mary Davis, Sean Gallagher, David Norris and Dana Rosemary Scallon) and this has been repeated in the recent 2018 presidential election with Peter Casey, Gavan Duffy, Joan Freeman and Sean Gallagher all obtaining council backing.  

Counting the votes

This weekend, amateur and professional psephologists will pour over the figures from previous presidential elections. A six-candidate race in 2018 means that votes will be competitively hard to obtain, especially for candidates struggling in the polls. While all candidates right up to polling day have been making positive soundings about their chances of victory, the reality is that some candidates, who have fared badly in opinion polls, may now be quite content just to achieve in excess of a quarter of the quota in votes. This will mean they can seek the reimbursement of their election expenses.  

From RTÉ Archives, Martina Fitzgerald reports for RTÉ News on the election of Michael D Higgins as president in 2011

No candidate will want to achieve the dubious distinction of recording the lowest number of first preference votes ever received in a contested Irish presidential election. The figure to beat is 48,657 votes, which was the number of first preferences obtained by Mary Davis in 2011. In the same election, Dana obtained just 51,220 votes and the next worst performance in a presidential election is 59,529 votes obtained by Derek Nally in 1997.

At the other end of the scale, is Michael D. Higgins’s performance in 2011. As the then candidate of the Labour Party, Mr Higgins secured a massive 701,101 first preference votes. Given that some campaign opinion polls in the 2018 election estimated the serving President’s support at just short of 70 percent, it will be interesting to see if the incumbent can beat his own record as the biggest first preference vote winner in an Irish presidential election.  

The person with the distinction for having obtained the second highest number of first preference votes in an Irish presidential election to date is currently Fianna Fail’s Brian Lenihan Senior. Despite his campaign becoming immersed in controversy, Lenihan actually topped the poll in the 1990 election, obtaining a very impressive 694,484 first preference votes. In this election, the elimination of the third-placed candidate, Fine Gael’s Austin Currie, strongly benefitted Mary Robinson, who had been nominated by the Labour Party and the Workers’ Party. She received an overwhelming 76.7 percent of Currie’s transfers to outpoll Lenihan and to be elected the first female president of Ireland.  

With the exception of the Independent Douglas Hyde, all Irish presidents prior to Mary Robinson's victory had strong links with Fianna Fail

Fianna Fail and the Áras

Robinson’s victory was seen as groundbreaking, not just because of her gender.  With the exception of the Independent Douglas Hyde, all Irish presidents prior to her victory had strong links with Fianna Fail. Ireland’s second president, Sean T. O’Kelly, was previously a Fianna Fail Tanaiste. Eamon de Valera was the party’s founder and leader for 33, while Erskine Childers was a former Fianna Fail minister. Cearbhall O Dalaigh was a former Fianna Fail Attorney-General and general election candidate; and Patrick Hillery was a former Fianna Fail minister. 

But Robinson did not completely break the mould. In 1997, former Fianna Fail general election candidate Mary McAleese, who was nominated by Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats, was elected Ireland’s eight president. It is a measure of how much Fianna Fail’s political fortunes have slipped that the party have chosen not to contest the presidency in both 2011 and 2018.

The independents

When McAleese sought re-election in 2004, she did so as an independent rather than as a Fianna Fail candidate by making use of the provisions of Article 12.4.4 of the 1937 Constitution. This allows a serving president to become a candidate on his or her own nomination and thereby maintain political independence.  In 1952, President Sean T. O’Kelly’s use of this constitutional provision, rather than seeking a nomination from his former party colleagues in Fianna Fail, ensured that he was not opposed by Fine Gael for a second term. 

In 1983, a very reluctant President Hillery was prevailed upon by then Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, Fianna Fail leader Charles Haughey and Labour Party leader Dick Spring to use this constitutional provision to re-nominate himself. Hillery was re-elected unopposed, delaying his plans for retirement and saving the political parties the expense of a General Election. In different political circumstances, President Michael D Higgins’ willingness to nominate himself as a candidate was not enough to prevent a presidential election. 

Re-elect the president

However, the omens for Higgins' re-election have been strong from the outset. A siting Irish president seeking re-election has never failed to be returned to Áras an Uachtaráin. O’Kelly, Hillery and McAleese were all re-elected unopposed. 

Prior to 2018, Eamon de Valera was the only sitting Irish president to face a re-election campaign. De Valera was ultimately victorious but, to use the words of his opponent Fine Gael’s Tom O’Higgins, it was "a close-run thing." 

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News footage of Eamon de Valera's inauguration in 1966

This election took place in 1966, the Golden Jubilee of the Easter Rising. As the last surviving commandant from the 1916 rebellion, De Valera was seen as unbeatable, but his youthful opponent ran a dynamic and vigorous campaign. De Valera, who was 83 years old at the time of the election, chose to completely sit out the election campaign on the basis he was above politics and, unlike President Higgins, did not participate in any election debates. 

O’Higgins came within a half a percent (one extra vote in each ballot box in the country, as Fine Gael leader Liam Cosgrave put it) of beating de Valera, the undisputed electoral giant of 20th century Irish politics. Against a backdrop of a valid poll of just over 1.1 million people, de Valera won by a mere 10,717 votes. It is a safe bet to suggest that the winner of the 2018 Presidential Election will have a much more commanding margin of victory.   


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