'Elections are won by men and women chiefly because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody." Not only the presidential election but also the referendum votes are classic examples of what Franklin P Adams, an American journalist and humourist, wrote as long ago as 1944.
Was I happy with the new President, I was asked in a local shop. Less unhappy than I would have been with any other candidate, I replied. For this was an election in which who won was less important than who lost. The most significant and welcome aspect is that it was a vote against Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness. More importantly, it was also a vote against the monstrous proposition that the island of Ireland is a single political entity and that there is no distinction between the still democratically dysfunctional polity of Northern Ireland and the independent Irish State, a state with a proud and uninterrupted tradition of democracy stretching back to 1922.
It is too early to judge whether Sinn Fein's choice of McGuinness as their candidate was misguided. In terms of ability, personality, presence and charisma, they could not have fielded a stronger candidate. But he could never escape the burden of his damnosa hereditas: the blood spilt by the IRA throughout their 30-year war in Northern Ireland with which he was, and will forever remain, indelibly identified.
That he failed utterly to shake off that gory albatross around his neck came as a profound shock to Sinn Fein. It remains to be seen whether they have learnt the lesson: that if they want significantly to develop their voter base in this state, they must look to candidates who come from this state rather than candidates imported from Northern Ireland. It is arguable, for example, that someone like Pearse Doherty -- who has the advantages of youth and none of the disadvantages of identification with the IRA -- would have been better placed to harvest many of the tens of thousands of protest votes that went to Sean Gallagher.
But Sinn Fein is nothing if not pragmatic and once they saw the writing on the wall they, too, were driven by the Adams' maxim about the imperative to vote against somebody rather than for somebody. For McGuinness's devastating ambush of Gallagher in that fateful Frontline debate was driven by Sinn Fein's last-minute efforts to maximise the vote against Fianna Fail.
Whether Gallagher was a genuinely independent candidate was irrelevant. All that mattered was that he was the candidate most closely associated with Fianna Fail. It was not that Sinn Fein wanted to vote for Michael D Higgins as President, but that they wanted to vote against the candidate whose victory would have been hailed, at least in part, as a triumph for Fianna Fail.
For the key to Sinn Fein's choice of McGuinness was not that they expected him to win but that they believed that he was the candidate best placed to continue their corrosion of the Fianna Fail vote so apparent in the general election. That strategy failed insofar as the increase in Sinn Fein's percentage of the total votes cast was so slight. On balance, moreover, October 27 was a much better day for Fianna Fail than they could have hoped for. First, because of Gallagher's remarkably strong showing, the nearest thing they had to a horse in the race; and, second, because of the equally strong showing of their candidate in the Dublin West by-election.
Indeed, October 27 may yet come to be seen as the moment when the toxicity of the Fianna Fail brand began to fade. And for that they can thank McGuinness. For what the presidential election exposed was not the toxicity of Fianna Fail but the much more poisonous toxicity of Sinn Fein.
Or, as Franklin Adams would have it, most people were determined to vote against Sinn Fein rather than against Fianna Fail. Before the election campaign began, it was unclear whether traditional Fianna Fail voters, disillusioned with their leadership's humiliatingly pusillanimous decision not to run a candidate, might seek refuge in Sinn Fein. It didn't happen and the corollary of Sinn Fein's strategy of targeting Fianna Fail was a growing recognition in Fianna Fail that, if they are to regain their self-respect, they must define themselves against Sinn Fein.
And what of the government parties? Labour, because of Michael D Higgins's victory and Patrick Nulty's success in the Dublin West by-election, are obviously the exception to Adams' rule of thumb.
But it does apply to Fine Gael and the rot seems to have set in with the party leadership's marked lack of enthusiasm for Gay Mitchell's candidature and culminated in the party faithful voting against the hapless Mitchell in droves and jumping instead on to the bandwagon of Higgins.
The most interesting and, from a government perspective, the most potentially dangerous example of the Adams' maxim, however, was the humiliating defeat of the amendment strengthening the powers of inquiry of Oireachtas committees.
While the success of the other, the 29th amendment enabling reductions in judicial pay, was manifestly a vote against the judges (in the sense that public opinion was overwhelmingly opposed to the prospect of judges alone escaping the pain of the recession), the defeat of the former referendum was a vote against the politicians and, in particular, a vote against the overweening arrogance of two cabinet ministers: Alan Shatter and Brendan Howlin.
There is some excuse for Howlin, whose outrageous criticism of the Referendum Commission and its chairman, the former High Court judge Bryan McMahon, was triggered by Shatter's shameless attempt to abdicate all responsibility for the debacle by laying the blame on Howlin.
While Howlin had the good grace to apologise for what he himself quickly and publicly admitted was his "cack-handed" intervention., Shatter is a different matter -- not least because he is so cocooned in an invincible belief in his own ministerial rectitude that he doesn't do apologies. That has been evident since June in his blustering attempts then to deflect the persuasive criticisms of tribunal chairman, Judge Peter Smithwick, that Shatter was interfering in the work of his tribunal which is investigating allegations of Garda collusion in the IRA murders of RUC Superintendents Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan.
The public have for the most part forgotten that squalid exercise in ministerial omnipotence, but they will not easily forget Shatter's latest performance.
Every coalition government has its weakest link, an unenviable position to which he now has the strongest claim.
Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore will recall that Noel Browne played that role with disastrous repercussions for the stability of the first coalition government of 1948-51.
They, together with Attorney General Maire Whelan, should further recall the frantic attempts of the then-Taoiseach, John A Costello and leader of Clann na Poblachta, Sean MacBride, to rein in Browne and, in particular, that they did too little, too late.
Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin