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Terry Prone: With Mary on for the Aras the contest really hots up

Today's announcement that Special Olympics heroine Mary Davis has thrown her hat into the ring for the Presidential election blows the whole contest wide open. Suddenly, there's no single certain winner, and all political parties are faced with an uncomfortable over-supply of worthy contenders.

The person who deserves praise or blame for this confusion is Dana Rosemary Scallon. When she failed to beat Mary McAleese for the right to live in Aras an Uachtarain, she uttered a soundbite that sounded cute and sweet and very Dana.

"I may not be a President," she told reporters. "But I AM a precedent."

Today, that soundbite looks a lot more than cute and sweet and very Dana. It looks like a statement of history having been made, old habits broken and new possibilities opened up, because it was Dana who first copped on to the fact that someone who wants to be President of Ireland does not necessarily have to be favoured by any political party. If they're prepared to travel around the country to sell their wares to local county councils, and if they get the requisite number to support them, they can run.


This time around, it was Senator David Norris who moved first along the Dana route to electioneering. Because of his personality, track record and position within the Seanad, he was able to get a head start on everybody else, and for a time seemed to be the maverick who would appeal, not just to voters who are not affiliated to any political party, but to some voters generally loyal to Fine Gael, Fianna Fail or Labour who don't see voting for an Independent candidate in a Presidential election as party treachery.

They were the voters who ultimately put Mary Robinson in the Aras, and their moving away from party loyalties was reinforced by President Robinson's mould-breaking performance in the office.

Freed from the old expectations, many voters see the Presidency in quite a different way from the pre-Robinson years. The two women who most recently held the office have re-defined the role completely, and that's particularly subject to what's called the Law of Recency, which holds that the most immediate impression in our memories decides how we will look at the future.

That has a number of implications, one of which is that voters no longer see the Presidency as an essentially passive role given as a reward for previous political activity. They want a President who is younger, who is active, who is a stirring speaker and who contributes to the transformation of Ireland.

In turn, that hangs question marks over prospective candidates who might, in earlier times, have been regarded as shoo-ins. Former Taoiseach John Bruton is one of those possible candidates: a clever, internationally-competent politician and statesman who could muster massive support within the political party he once led. But the public memory of Bruton has faded and he is not seen as young, charismatic or exciting. The same problem faces Pat Cox. Sean Kelly, former president of the GAA, has recency and a substantial cohort of admirers behind him, but it may not be enough.


Mary Davis's candidacy really screws up the aspirations of David Norris and Fergus Finlay. The former may have peaked too soon, allowing people to move from the position of believing a literary gay figure would make a great global statement about Ireland to wondering if Senator Norris could sufficiently control his ebullience to do justice to the role of President.

Fergus Finlay, already contending with Michael D Higgins for the support/nomination of the Labour Party, also faces new problems with the arrival of Davis. They both occupy the disability space, but although Fergus has been fighting for the rights of people with disabilities for so long and with such passion, a fickle public may prefer the feel-good associations Davis carries from her work with the Special Olympics.

As the sports commentators say: "It's all to play for." The problem is that nobody really knows, at this point, how to play in a fragmented field.