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Race for Presidency a battle of two Irelands

THERE will be no surprise at all in one result from the Irish Independent/Millward Brown Lansdowne opinion poll. This is the finding that Mary McAleese is an outstandingly popular President. She is a hard act to follow, by any standard. Yet the success of her Presidency will have done much to create the interest in standing from such a wide variety of potential candidates.

The poll findings on the candidates are intriguing, rather than surprising. Senator David Norris remains the most popular candidate, as he has been since he first declared.

Normally, there would be no surprise in a front-runner remaining in front, but the controversy over past comments from Mr Norris about relations between older men and younger could have derailed his campaign before it left the station.

Looking at the details, it may well be that Mr Norrris lost no ground at all from this issue. His strongest support is from women and younger voters, and is geographically concentrated in Dublin and other urban areas. He is much less popular with older and rural voters.

Depending on who the candidates are, and assuming that Mr Norris gets a nomination, the election could therefore be a re-run of battles between the "two Irelands" which figured in past referenda.

That question of who the candidates will be is the most intriguing of all at this stage. The reason of course, is what might be called an embarrassment of Fine Gael candidates. The party looks like it will end up holding a "convention" to decide which of the people who get a nomination will be its candidate.

In an ideal world, this outbreak of democracy would redound to the party's credit. In the actual world, the outcome may leave resentments inside Fine Gael and a feeling among the voters that the party was divided and disorganised.

Then there is the undoubtedly intriguing question of the Fianna Fail candidate -- if any. It is assumed that a nominated candidate could not win, but for whom will past Fianna Fail voters plump? If the part has not lost all its past cunning, it might even try to influence that question.

As the poll shows, though, voters are smart enough not to care too much about party allegiance in presidential elections. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that popular candidates from outside the main parties struggle to get a nomination.

This is one reform that a government pledged to political reform ought to investigate. The bar for candidacy must be set fairly high, but it should not be so firmly in the gift of the political apparatus.

Irish Independent