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Trump fans, artists and farmers: The people who would be Ireland’s president

The election race starts in earnest next week. A hard road lies ahead for the hopefuls

As it gathers momentum, so it gathers participants. The process of nominating candidates for the presidential election has been a background hum to the summer news silly season, but it will enter a different phase next week.

The election order is expected to be moved in the coming days, kick-starting a 28-day period in which hopeful candidates can secure a place on the ballot paper to take on Michael D Higgins in the autumn. Polling day is expected to be Thursday, October 25th, or Friday, October 26th.

That is not to say, however, that the contest will take on a more serious bent just yet. At the time of writing, 10 people – some more likely than others to get nominations – have expressed an interest in standing as Independent candidates against Higgins, either through official announcements of intent or via the time-honoured political tradition of “actively considering” a run. Some are already making promises that the role of President cannot fulfil.

One figure who has worked on a  presidential campaign says the class of 2018 have left their organisational efforts very late. 'We started in May'

They have two options to enter the contest proper: by gathering 20 signatures from TDs and Senators or by winning the backing of four county councils. As the Dáil does not return from its summer recess until September 18th, the focus for most aspiring candidates is on the councils.


One figure who has worked on a previous presidential campaign, from the initial approach to councillors all the way through to polling day, says the class of 2018 have left their organisational efforts very late.

“We started in May. We had people in every county working the councillors. That was very important, so by the time we met them they would have been approached and worked on by local people in their constituency. That network is vital.

“The councillors certainly like the power of it. We met them in their houses. It was a long, long campaign in that sense . . . They didn’t really much ask about vision. It was, like, ‘Who do you know?’ It was about your family, your interests.”

Another source who was centrally involved in the last presidential election, in 2011, says: “What you would be doing is spending a lot of time calling individual councillors. It is painstaking. It’s a bit like a Seanad campaign.”

During Seanad campaigns – councillors and Oireachtas members are the electorate for most Upper House seats – candidates, many already bruised from a failure to be elected to the Dáil, are expected to canvass councillors in person, often at their homes.

For this presidential contest the businessman Gavin Duffy has been meeting some councillors individually, and Sean Gallagher – the runner-up to Higgins in 2011 – this week met a handful to "sound out" the prospect of another run for Áras an Uachtaráin.

Aside from the two former Dragons' Den judges the 2018 election has already attracted a crowded field, and yet more candidates may appear as councils fix dates for meetings to hear from potential runners.

A number of local authorities have already held such sessions, and Meath and Kildare county councils meet on Monday to follow suit. Motions backing individual candidates – each council can support only one person – cannot be passed until the order is moved, however.

Some candidates fall off the presidential Ferris wheel only to clamber aboard again. Marie Goretti Moylan, an Athlone woman, had been due to address Carlow County Council earlier this month but failed to show on the day. She is also slated to address Kildare County Council on Monday, although efforts were under way last week to see if she will actually turn up in Naas.

Councillors in Kildare will also hear from John Groarke, a farmer from Tulsk, Co Roscommon, who believes that "you never see ordinary Joe Soaps getting into high office", and whose platform will focus on homelessness and the health service.

Sarah Louise Mulligan, a Marilyn Monroe impersonator and actor, was introduced on Sky News as chief executive of the website Irish Who Love President Trump

Jimmy Smyth, lead guitarist with The Bogey Boys, a band popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s, will speak to Meath councillors. Smyth says he believes “that the President can and should hold the Government to account”.

Sarah Louise Mulligan, whose website describes her as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, singer, burlesque performer and actor, will tell Meath councillors of her vision for the presidency. Mulligan campaigned to retain the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which banned abortion, in the referendum in May. Sky News introduced her as "chief executive of the website Irish Who Love President Trump".

Patrick Feeney, a former Aer Lingus employee who won 22 votes in Galway West at the last general election, also addressed Carlow County Council.

Gemma O'Doherty, the journalist who declared her candidacy last weekend, indicated that she wanted to focus on the Oireachtas route. The Independent Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh has yet to decide if he will stand but is thought to favour a nomination from his Oireachtas colleagues.

Gavin Duffy, the artist Kevin Sharkey and Senator Joan Freeman, founder of the suicide charity Pieta House, will also attend the council meetings in Meath and Kildare, although they have different attitudes to the courting process.

Sharkey, who has placed immigration at the centre of his pitch, says that lobbying councillors does not appeal to him. “They’ve got lives,” he says. “And personally calling people outside business hours doesn’t sit well with me. I do know other candidates have been ringing around, which I would find annoying.”

So far Freeman has called councillors a day or so before each meeting, to thank them for taking the time to attend the session in question.

Sean Gallagher has also written to councils, urging them to allow Independent candidates into the race, without formally declaring if he will run. But he is almost certain to make an announcement once the election order is moved. "I fully expect him to be a candidate even though no announcement has been made," a source close to the Cavan man said.

People around Gallagher maintain that because he secured a nomination in 2011 he has not had to engage in the initial wooing of councils, as others have. So many councillors have contacted Gallagher promising their support already, they say, that he does not have to engage in the same level of preliminary campaigning.

Six councillors from six counties, drawn from the ranks of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Independents, declared their support for Gallagher this week. Such orchestrated moves make the Gallagher camp confident he can secure the backing of the required four councils in short order, allowing him to rapidly move from being an aspiring candidate to an actual candidate.

This also has the benefit of elevating Gallagher, at least temporarily, above others who are seeking council support.

Micheál Martin has released Fianna Fáil councillors from the whip he applied to his parliamentary party on supporting Higgins.

Fine Gael councillors have been asked to support Higgins, in line with its TDs and Senators, but the party hierarchy knows its recommendation will be ignored.

Allowing somebody into the presidential election does not mean a councillor or TD wants that person to become president

Candidates such as Duffy, Freeman and Gallagher – the likeliest to secure council nominations – will be targeting Fine Gael councillors such as Sharon Tolan, in Meath. "I'd like to listen to the candidates," she says. "I do believe in the democratic process, and I do believe there should be an election. I don't believe in blocking anyone."

Tolan also believes that those already in the field have opened themselves up to scrutiny and that “anyone who comes late in the day is a bit disingenuous”.

People who have previously worked on presidential campaigns say candidates can often fail to distinguish between the two stages of their campaign. Allowing somebody into the presidential election does not mean a councillor or TD wants that person to become president. Candidates can often conflate these separate parts of the process, because so much effort goes into the former, according to one source.

Yet Tolan says she will support Duffy in the campaign itself if he gets a nomination. That they live in the same county may be a factor. “As it is, looking at the selection that is there, Gavin has my number one at the moment,” she says.

Gallagher, who comes from a Fianna Fáil tradition, will hope supporters of the party among the wider electorate will back him in the absence of having their own candidate. The Galway West TD Éamon Ó Cuív had allowed his name to be linked with a possible run but has privately told colleagues in recent days that he will not seek a nomination.

Sinn Féin has yet to unveil its candidate, although a selection process is under way. The party's ardchomhairle, or ruling council, will decide on September 16th whom it will stand against Higgins. The Munster MEP Liadh Ní Riada is widely tipped.

Awaiting all who win a nomination is Higgins himself. As the outgoing President he can nominate himself; the former Labour Party TD and minister will run as an Independent. He may also be able to shape the terms of the campaign, by choosing how much or little he engages with his challengers. Sources close to the President maintain he will take part in debates, and the structure of his re-election campaign is expected to take shape soon.

Already, prominent individuals in civic society have been sounded out about chairing a campaign committee or something similar, with Higgins keen to maintain his status as an Independent candidate by keeping senior political figures at arm’s length. He is likely to largely sit back for the month of September, as his aspiring challengers try to secure their places on the ballot paper.

The sitting President's rivals will hope to drag Higgins back into debate, and needle a President whom even his admirers and friends admit does not take criticism well

Higgins, after a successful seven-year term, is the heavy favourite to win, yet an incumbent has never been challenged for a second term in modern times. Éamon de Valera’s close victory over Tom O’Higgins of Fine Gael, in 1966, belongs to a different era.

The sitting President's rivals will hope to drag Higgins back into debate, and needle a President whom even his admirers and friends admit does not take criticism well. The old hands also point to the experience of previous elections, such as that of 2011, when Senator David Norris was initially the frontrunner. "All the polls at the time said he was going to run away with it," one says. "Gallagher didn't feature."

Gallagher and his fellow challengers want history to repeat itself in 2018.


President Michael D Higgins The President will nominate himself as an Independent candidate for a second term.

Sean Gallagher The runner-up in 2011 is expected to formally declare his candidacy in the weeks ahead.

Gavin Duffy The businessman has already addressed a number of councils and is canvassing councillors.

Joan Freeman The Pieta House founder has also spoken at a number of councils and lobbied TDs and Senators.

Kevin Sharkey The artist has said the country needs to "wake up" to immigration and has also called for a referendum on Ireland's EU membership.

Sinn Féin The party will announce its candidate on September 16th. Among the possibilities are the Munster MEP Liadh Ní Riada and the Belfast solicitor John Finucane. Party councillors will abstain in any presidential-nomination votes.

Pádraig Ó Céidigh The Independent Senator and Galway businessman, who was once chairman of Aer Arann, says he is still weighing up a run.

Gemma O'Doherty The journalist has asked people to contact their TDs and Senators and ask them to sign her nomination papers. She has accused the Government of failing Ireland "on a terrifying scale".

Patrick Feeney The former Aer Lingus employee won 22 votes in Galway West at the last general election, and has addressed Carlow County Council about the presidency.

Marie Goretti Moylan The Athlone woman was due to address Carlow County Council earlier this month but did not show up. Earlier this year she said she would safeguard the "economic interests of all Irish citizens".

John Groarke Groarke, a farmer from Co Roscommon, has said people "running for these high offices are all very well paid, most of them, and the rural people of Ireland don't get a look-in at these jobs".

Jimmy Smyth Smyth, the lead guitarist with The Bogey Boys, wants to mount a "proper people-power campaign".

Sarah Louise Mulligan Mulligan, from Glasnevin in Dublin, is chief executive of She has said: "Maybe Ireland needs someone a little bit like that. I like him a lot."