October 21, 2011 / 1:58 PM / in 6 years

Irish eyes are rolling at presidential poll

<p>Irish Presidential candidate Martin McGuinness peels vegetables during a visit to Ballinasloe Horse fair as he continues cavassing for votes ahead of the 27th October Polling day October 8, 2011. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton</p>

DUBLIN (Reuters) - What do a staunchly Catholic pop singer, a convicted nationalist guerrilla and a gay rights activist with a fondness for Georgian architecture have in common?

It might sound like the start of a bad joke but in fact it is part of the line-up for Ireland’s presidential election.

The contest for the ceremonial position has attracted a record seven candidates and a soap-opera-style stream of intrigue and scandal that has distracted Irish people from their economic woes.

“It’s pure entertainment at this stage,” said Valerie Drew, a 45-year-old civil servant. “I think people are more interested in the individuals’ private lives than in what they can do.”

“The whole thing is a bit of a joke,” she said shaking her head.

Irish presidential elections are notoriously unpleasant affairs because of the focus on personality over policy but this campaign has been particularly grubby.

While the role is chief ceremonial, Ireland’s president has the right to refer legislation to the Supreme Court.

David Norris, a leading authority on Irish author James Joyce and well-known campaigner for gay rights, withdrew from the race over the summer after it emerged he had sought clemency for his former Israeli partner, who had been convicted of statutory rape.

He was already in hot water because of republished comments, originally made by him in 2002, defending the attitudes of the ancient Greeks to pederasty or sex between men and boys.

Enduringly popular for a quick wit, delivered with trademark plummy tones and a showman’s flourish, Norris re-entered the race last month but has failed to get past the controversy.

Once the front-runner, the 67-year-old is now languishing fifth in the polls.

SOAP OPERA

Norris isn’t the only one battling scandals.

Dana Rosemary Scallon, a former winner of the Eurovision Song contest, left the country agog last week when she ended a televised debate with an emotionally charged and opaque announcement about “malicious allegations” against her family.

After the broadcast ended, Norris gave the petite mother of four a hug while audiences at home scratched their heads and surfed the Internet for clues.

Scallon, who came third in the 1997 presidential race, later revealed that “malicious lies” of a “sexual nature” had been spread about a member of her family but vowed to continue campaigning.

The latest opinion poll showed that the devout Catholic was trailing last.

The other female in the race, Mary Davis, is only a nose ahead of Scallon.

Best known for bringing the Special Olympics World Games to Ireland in 2003, Davis’ flattering campaign photos have been grabbing the limelight, forcing her to deny allegations of digital enhancement.

“It’s a bit of a soap opera at this stage,” said Ciaran Murtagh, 36, as he walked through Dublin’s Saint Stephen’s Green.

When Irish people vote for the president on October 27 they will also be asked to vote in two referendums: one on cutting judges’ pay and the other on giving Ireland’s parliament the power to conduct investigations.

Murtagh said the other issues might be of more interest to the electorate.

“I wouldn’t say there’ll be a huge turnout. I’d say people would be happier to vote on cutting judges’ pay.”

ALL KINDS OF EVERYTHING

While Scallon was singing about “All Kinds of Everything” for Europe in the early 1970s her fellow Londonderry native Martin McGuinness was joining the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and getting involved in bloody street battles with British soldiers.

His entry into the presidential race has sent shockwaves through the Republic’s political establishment, who already fear the success of his Sinn Fein party in a recent parliamentary election and want to cap any further gains.

A hero among Catholics in British-controlled Northern Ireland for helping to end three decades of sectarian bloodshed, his insistence that he left the IRA in 1974 has prompted disbelief and strong criticism. He has been confronted on the campaign trail by the son of an IRA victim.

With their own candidate’s campaign stuck in the doldrums, some ministers from Ireland’s senior government party have been painting McGuinness as a villain with one warning competitors for foreign investment would “not be slow to whisper about a terrorist” holding the office of president if he is successful.

But McGuinness’ success in getting the IRA to end its war and his ability to work with former foes as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister has struck a chord with voters in the south, and he was rated third in the latest opinion poll.

The man McGuinness and the rest of the field have to beat is Sean Gallagher, a businessman most famous for being on a reality TV show. He has recently surged ahead of previous favorite Michael D. Higgins, a 70-year-old poet and former minister for culture.

With a week to go before voting, the unpredictable contest continues to dominate the headlines.

For some at least it is a welcome diversion from a prolonged financial crisis.

“It’s a distraction and that’s a good thing,” said Tom, 56, on his way into work. “All we hear about is austerity but there are only so many times you can be told you are poor.”

Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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