Big names opt out of presidential race

Even before the campaigning begins, the presidential election is turning out to be very eventful.

Even before the campaigning begins, the presidential election is turning out to be very eventful.

The big news in the past two weeks hasn’t been about who is putting their name forward but those who are pulling out.

First it was frontrunner David Norris who had to abandon his hopes of reaching the Aras following the scandal involving his former partner and a letter that Norris wrote to the Israeli courts seeking clemency on a statutory rape charge.

Then broadcaster Gay Byrne opted out before he was ever even in.

That leaves four declared candidates but there may be more before nominations close.

With both ‘big name personalities’ now out of the race there may be room for another high profile candidate to challenge the declared runners.

The Norris departure wasn’t unexpected following the disclosure of his approach to the Israeli courts. It prompted many of his campaign team to jump ship and some of the Oireachtas members who had offered their support to have him nominated had a change of heart.

There were also rumours of other disclosures that could have embarrassed the independent senator.

Norris was the frontrunner before he opted out and remarkably was still the most popular in polls taken after his decision.

That suggested that voters may have had reservations about his actions but they still felt he should be on the ballot paper. That would at least allow the Irish people to decide on his fate rather than a motley crew of TDs and senators.

There are good reasons for the nomination criteria for the presidential election or else the ballot paper wouldn’t be able to accommodate all the names of Aras aspirants but the Norris case suggests that changes may be needed.

If so many people had shown a preference for him in opinion polls shouldn’t they at least then have the opportunity to vote for him in the election itself.

Gay Byrne’s situation was different as he was almost a reluctant candidate.

There seemed to be a mood in the country that the race needed a personality and Fianna Fail leader Miceal Martin thought that too and offered his party’s support to Byrne to secure the nomination.

The idea appeared to interest the veteran broadcaster - but not much more than that, or so it appeared to the public.

It’s fair to say that he had no aspirations to chase such a lofty position. Fianna Fail may have planted the seed and friends and advisors appeared to encourage the idea.

Initial reaction was favourable with Gaybo being described as the most charismatic of the candidates and quite electable.

But then the mood changed a little as evidenced by many articles and letters in the newspapers. Even though Gay vowed to stand as an independent - if he stood at all - he was going to be associated with Fianna Fail.

His outspoken remarks on Brussels may have won approval from many but they were undiplomatic and unpresidential.

His money has often been a source of debate and there were clear indications that it would become an election issue.

And then there was the privacy issue - although that might seem a little strange coming from the country’s best known radio and television personality.

But he seemed to detect that the campaign could become nasty. He is not universally loved and his opponents and supporters of the other candidates were not going to give him an easy ride because he was Gay Byrne.

And one felt that he would only stand if he was guaranteed success - and there’s never a guarantee in an election.

He wasn’t ready for a dog fight as the other more politically aware and astute candidates are. He was either going to be elected by acclaim or not all.

His decision to opt out may have disappointed his supporters and admirers but one feels that Michael D Higgins, Gay Mitchell, Sean Gallagher and Mary Davis - and perhaps even Dana Rosemary Scallon - cannot have been too upset.