Irish presidential election, 2011

Irish presidential election, 2011
Republic of Ireland
27 October 2011

Turnout 56.1%
Nominee Michael D. Higgins Seán Gallagher Martin McGuinness
Party Labour Party Independent Sinn Féin
1st preference 701,101 (39.6%) 504,964 (28.5%) 243,030 (13.7%)
2nd count 730,480 (41.6%) 539,401 (30.1%) 252,611 (14.4%)
3rd count 793,128 (45.5%) 548,373 (31.5%) 265,196 (15.2%)
Final count 1,007,104 (56.8%) 628,114 (35.5%) Eliminated

Nominee Gay Mitchell David Norris Dana Rosemary Scallon
Party Fine Gael Independent Independent
1st preference 113,321 (6.4%) 109,469 (6.2%) 51,220 (2.9%)
2nd count 127,357 (7.3%) 116,526 (6.6%) Eliminated
3rd count 136,309 (7.8%) Eliminated
Final count Eliminated

Nominee Mary Davis
Party Independent
1st preference 48,657 (2.7%)
2nd count Eliminated

President before election

Mary McAleese
Fianna Fáil

Elected President

Michael D. Higgins
Labour Party

Coat of arms of Ireland
This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
the Republic of Ireland

The Irish presidential election of 2011 was the thirteenth presidential election to be held in Ireland, and the first to be contested by a record seven candidates.[1] It was held on Thursday, 27 October 2011.[2][3] The election was held to elect a successor to Mary McAleese, with the winner scheduled to be inaugurated as the ninth President of Ireland on 11 November 2011. Two constitutional referendums and a by-election for a vacant Dáil seat in the Dublin West constituency took place on the same day.[4][5]

The seven candidates were Mary Davis, Seán Gallagher, Michael D. Higgins, Martin McGuinness, Gay Mitchell, David Norris and Dana Rosemary Scallon. Davis, Gallagher, Norris and Scallon (all running as Independents), secured their nominations via local authorities. Higgins was put forward by Labour, McGuinness was put forward by Sinn Féin and Mitchell was put forward by Fine Gael. The previously dominant Fianna Fáil party declined to put forward an official candidate following their disastrous general election campaign earlier that year. Norris, a civil rights campaigner credited with helping overthrow Ireland's laws criminalising homosexuality, was the leading candidate for much of the race, and had more than double the support of the other declared candidates in January 2011. He withdrew in August 2011 but returned to the race the following month due to his continuing widespread popular appeal.

The opening televised debate, Vincent Browne's Big Presidential Debate on TV3, saw moderator Vincent Browne challenge Sinn Féin candidate Martin McGuinness on the post-1974 membership of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), that McGuinness repeatedly denied, by producing eight books from under his desk that claimed otherwise. Fine Gael candidate Gay Mitchell suffered from lack of recognition by many voters, and suffered heavily for his controversial views on suicide and on Ireland joining the Commonwealth. Labour candidate Michael D. Higgins was pursued by his past links to the unpopular Fianna Fáil and his admission that he had smoked marijuana. Independent candidate Dana Rosemary Scallon interrupted the Prime Time debate, moderated by Miriam O'Callaghan, to read out a statement condemning a "malicious" and "false" accusation that she had heard had been made against her family. Seán Gallagher, a former member of the Fianna Fáil national executive, was leading the opinion polls ahead of the final televised debate, moderated by Pat Kenny on The Frontline. However, Gallagher's campaign came undone when he admitted live on air to collecting a €5,000 cheque for a Fianna Fáil fundraiser event from a man he described as a "convicted criminal and fuel smuggler".

Michael D. Higgins was ultimately elected the ninth President of Ireland.[6][7] Gallagher finished in second place, McGuinness finished in third, while Norris, favourite for much of the race, finished fifth. Gallagher's sudden demise was compared to Devon Loch's fall at the winning post in the 1956 Grand National.[8]


To qualify, candidates had to:[9]

Presidential elections are conducted under the Presidential Elections Act 1993, as amended. Constitutionally, the election must be held not more than 60 days before the ending of the term of office of the incumbent, or within 60 days of the office becoming vacant.[11] On 27 July the government announced that the election would be held on 27 October 2011.[2] An order was made on 30 August by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government declaring 28 September to be the last day on which nominations could be received.[12][13] The election was conducted by means of the alternative vote (also called instant runoff voting), which is the single-winner analogue of the single transferable vote used in other Irish elections.[11] Although the constitution calls the system "proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote", a single-winner election cannot be proportional.[14] All Irish citizens entered on the current electoral register were eligible to vote.[9][11][15]

Nomination campaign

Following the general election in February 2011, and the election of the members of the 24th Seanad, only three political parties had the minimum 20 members of Oireachtas to nominate a candidate: Fine Gael (76 TDs and 19 senators), the Labour Party (37 TDs and 13 senators) and Fianna Fáil (19 TDs and 14 senators). Sinn Féin, the next largest party in the Dáil Éireann, have 14 TDs and 3 senators. For other candidates to be nominated, support from members of smaller parties, independents (of which there are currently 14 TDs and 11 senators) or excess members of the three larger parties was needed, or the support of four local authorities.

Fine Gael

Gay Mitchell, MEP for the Dublin constituency and former TD for Dublin South-Central was chosen as the Fine Gael candidate at a special convention held on 9 July 2011.[16][17] He announced that he would be seeking the party's nomination in June 2011, having been contacted by "a large number of senior figures in the party".[18][19][20] Voting was by secret ballot, with an electoral college consisting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party (TDs, Senators and MEPs) with 70% of the vote, county and city councillors (20%) and the twelve-member executive council (10%).[21]

Three others sought the nomination:

In March 2011, Fine Gael produced a shortlist of three candidates: John Bruton, Seán Kelly and Mairead McGuinness.[30] Bruton, a former Taoiseach and European Union Ambassador, ruled himself out of the contest on 28 May 2011.[31] Kelly, an MEP and former President of the Gaelic Athletic Association indicated on 1 June 2011 that he would not be seeking the party's nomination, and wished to continue serving in the European Parliament.[32] The party approached Nobel laureate poet Seamus Heaney in late 2010, but Heaney declined to stand unless he was an agreed cross-party candidate.[30][33]

On the announcement that Mitchell had won the nomination, the Sunday Independent stated that Kenny was seen to slump and "could barely contain his disappointment." When questioned by a journalist on his apparent disappointment, Kenny responded sharply "Am I supposed to be going around grinning like a Cheshire Cat at everything?"[26]

Labour Party

The Labour Party candidate was Michael D. Higgins. He was chosen jointly by the party's National Executive and the Labour Parliamentary Party at a special convention on 19 June 2011.[34]

The former TD and Minister, and current Labour Party president, originally indicated that he was interested in receiving the party's nomination in September 2010.[35][36][37] Like Higgins, two other candidates put their names forward in late May 2011:[36]

Fianna Fáil

For the first time in any presidential election, Fianna Fáil neither ran a candidate nor supported the nomination of a candidate. The decision was made at a meeting of the parliamentary party on 31 August 2011, and was in line with the recommendations of the six-person subcommittee formed by the party leader Micheál Martin to consider the matter.[39]

In June 2011 press reports had indicated that the party was unlikely to run a candidate both for financial reasons and also because it was unlikely that a Fianna Fáil nominee could be successful.[20][40][41] In early August 2011 there was press speculation that RTÉ broadcaster Gay Byrne might seek a nomination. On 6 August Micheál Martin rang Byrne at his holiday home to indicate that Fianna Fáil Oireachtas members would facilitate his nomination.[42] Byrne indicated that he had yet to make a decision on whether to put his name forward, but said that if he did so he would not run under the Fianna Fáil banner but as an independent, albeit with the assistance of the party's organisation. "Fianna Fáil are convinced no matter who they put up will be unelectable, so they're giving me their support" he told the Irish Independent.[43][44] Éamon Ó Cuív, the party's deputy leader and member of the committee tasked with deciding on their strategy for the election stated that "I know of no approach to Gay Byrne... Nobody has discussed the issue with me — good, bad or indifferent."[43][44] On 13 August Byrne informed Martin that he would not be going forward for nomination. He stated that the idea of running had been "foisted on him and he had not known anything about it and what it would involve".[45] This followed unease among Fianna Fáil parliamentary party Oireachtas members, with a number unhappy that a candidate was being imposed by the leadership without discussion.[46]

On 16 August 2011, the Irish Examiner reported that Micheál Martin had moved to pull the party out of the presidential race over the fallout from the approach to Gay Byrne, the cost involved and the slim chance of a candidate being elected.[47] On 24 August, however, the party's deputy leader Éamon Ó Cuív told Raidió na Gaeltachta that he believed the party should put forward a candidate.[48] Several members had expressed an interest in the a party nomination:

Following the decision by Fianna Fáil not to run their own candidate, there was speculation that some party members might be prepared to nominate an independent candidate. However, on 11 September the party's chief whip, Seán Ó Fearghail, made it clear that individual TDs and senators would not be permitted to sign the nomination papers of independent candidates. He said that if the party decided to support a candidacy it would be done collectively.[55]

A meeting of the parliamentary party was held on 15 September at which the issue of the presidential election was raised. Unexpectedly, one of the party's senators, Labhrás Ó Murchú, sought nominations to run as an independent candidate.[56] This was widely seen as a challenge to the authority of Micheál Martin.[57] The extended meeting broke up without agreement.[56] The parliamentary party met again on 20 September. Senator Ó Murchú withdrew his request for a nomination and a motion was passed that the party's Oireachtas members would not nominate or endorse any candidate. The decision was seen as a severe blow to the attempts to secure a nomination by David Norris and Dana Rosemary Scallon who were expected to need signatures from individual Fianna Fáil members.[58]

Sinn Féin

At the party's Ard Comhairle meeting in Dublin in June 2011, the party's leader, Gerry Adams TD, ruled himself out as a candidate.[59] He had previously expressed a wish to be elected president in time for the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016.[60]

There had been reports in July that artist Robert Ballagh was "seriously considering a run for the presidency", and had been in talks with Sinn Féin, the Socialist Party and People Before Profit Alliance.[61] A Sinn Féin source confirmed there had been "very informal discussions",[62] However, on 25 July Ballagh ruled himself out.[63]

In a keynote speech at the party's Ard Fheis on 10 September Gerry Adams said that he felt that Sinn Féin should support the nomination of "a candidate who is capable of winning the support of progressive and nationalist opinion... who will reflect the broad republican spirit of the Irish people at this time". He went on to state that the party's Ard Comhairle would consider the matter on 17 September.[64][65][66]

On 16 September it was revealed that the party would seek to have Martin McGuinness, deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, nominated to contest the election.[67] With 14 TDs and three Senators, Sinn Féin were three short of the required twenty Oireachtas members to nominate a candidate for the presidency. Soon after the nomination was announced, four Independent TDs agreed to nominate McGuinness,[68] securing his nomination: Michael Healy-Rae and Tom Fleming (both representing Kerry South), Luke 'Ming' Flanagan (Roscommon–South Leitrim) and Finian McGrath (Dublin North-Central). Both 'Ming' Flanagan and McGrath had previously pledged their support to Norris.


In order to secure a nomination, a number of non-party politicians sought the support of either 20 members of the Oireachtas or four city or county councils.

Oireachtas nominations

Council nominations

A number of independent politicians sought support from local authorities, and four candidates were nominated by the resolutions of four or more councils:

A number of councils scheduled special meetings to consider presidential nominations prior to the deadline of midday on 28 September 2011.[104][105]

Name Nominations Councils
Mary Davis 13 Galway City,[97] Galway County,[106] Kerry,[107] Limerick County,[108] Louth,[109] Mayo,[110] Monaghan,[111] North Tipperary,[112] South Tipperary,[111] Sligo,[113] Waterford County,[110] Wexford, Wicklow[107]
Seán Gallagher 4 Cork City,[110] Clare,[110] Leitrim,[113] Meath[113]
David Norris 4 Fingal,[100] Laois,[108] Waterford City,[114] Dublin City[115]
Dana Rosemary Scallon 4 Carlow,[116] Donegal,[117] Offaly,[118] Roscommon[108]


There were seven candidates contesting the presidential election, having been selected by their parties or having received sufficient council nominations. This was the largest number of candidates to contest an Irish presidential election.[1]

Election campaign

The "motley crew" of candidates (The Washington Times) led to much attention on the campaign and election outcome from the international media.[121] The Guardian described it as "the most fractious presidential election campaign since the republic was founded".[122]

Phil Hogan of Fine Gael, Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, attacked Martin McGuinness claiming that US multinational companies would be "appalled" if Martin McGuinness were elected and foreign direct investment would drop.[123] This was followed by a tweet made by Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe which claimed that McGuinness profited from the Northern Bank robbery.[124] This was in response to a pledge made by McGuinness to only take the average industrial wage, if elected President. McGuinness dismissed both charges as "black propaganda".[125] It was reported in The Irish Times that Fine Gael's "strategy of levelling strongly worded accusations at Mr McGuinness was part of a drive to motivate party voters to come out in support of Mr Mitchell in the October 27th election".[126]

At her formal campaign launch on 4 October, Independent Mary Davis accused Fine Gael of using polling companies to research attacks on her. She also pledged she would ask the Government to bring the office of President under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act and that she would publish an annual expenditure report for the Áras. David Norris also made a pledge to publish expenses.[127] Mrs. Davis eventually accepted "collective responsibility" for mortgage lending decisions made after she was appointed to the board of the ICS building society.[128]

During the campaign, several relatives of people killed during The Troubles objected to the prospect of a former IRA member, McGuinness, becoming President.[129][130][131][132] On 10 October, McGuinness was confronted in Athlone by the son of a member of the Irish Army killed by the IRA after Don Tidey's kidnap in Ballinamore in 1983.[133][134] In a RTÉ interview that aired on 20 October, Bryan Dobson noted a 1985 Hot Press interview in which McGuinness indicated that he considered the IRA volunteers at Ballinamore to be "defending themselves against armed Gardaí and soldiers." When Dobson then asked if it was "fair to say that on this occasion you were standing over the killing of members of the Gardaí and Defence Forces?" McGuinness insisted that he has "never done that."[135] The family of Garda Detective Frank Hand, killed in 1984, accused McGuinness of misleading younger generations with a "glossy campaign".[136][137] The husband of a mother killed by the IRA in 1981 said he doubted McGuinness' claims of ignorance about the identities of IRA killers, saying "If anybody knows who did it, he does. If he is full of apologies he has never apologised to me".[138]

In Northern Ireland, unionists took exception to the appearance of McGuinness election posters there given that Northern Ireland citizens were not eligible to vote in this Republic of Ireland election.[139] Sinn Féin has regularly called for voting rights in the presidential election to be extended to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland.[140]

Michael D. Higgins was confronted by former Tara mines workers while canvassing in Meath. The workers were upset about their pensions being cut.[141]


The first broadcast debate of the campaign took place on 28 September 2011, the day that nominations closed, on RTÉ Radio 1's News at One programme. This was followed by a series of televised one-on-one interviews with the candidates on RTÉ One's evening Prime Time programme on the same day.[142][143] A second debate was held on The Late Late Show on 30 September; David Norris was not interviewed alone as the other six candidates were as he had been interviewed the previous week on the programme, but was included in the later panel debate.[144]

On 4 October, TV3 broadcast Vincent Browne's Big Presidential Debate.[145] Gay Mitchell challenged Martin McGuinness on the "fairytale" that he left the IRA in 1974, asking him directly: "If you (McGuinness) say you left the IRA in 1974 and persist in saying that when you didn’t; if you say you are living on the average industrial wage when you are drawing down a couple of hundred grand – how can people have confidence in your word?"[146] Moderator Vincent Browne later challenged Martin McGuinness' claims that he left the Provisional Irish Republican Army in 1974, producing eight books with alleged evidence claiming otherwise.[147][148] McGuinness referenced this moment when he said in a later debate on the radio that people would blame him for the 1916 Rising if they could find a way to implicate him.[149]

During a debate on Today FM Gay Mitchell controversially spoke of Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth, with some other candidates disagreeing with him.[141] Mitchell suffered from poor voter recognition,[150] and was criticised over remarks on suicide he made on live radio.[151][152]

On 12 October, there was another TV debate on RTÉ, this time on the Prime Time programme, with the seven candidates and Miriam O'Callaghan as moderator.[153][154] The debate, lasting 90 minutes, took place on a Wednesday night, though Prime Time usually aired on a Tuesday and Thursday, and was announced a week in advance.[155] Dana Rosemary Scallon read out a prepared statement towards the end of the debate, announcing that a "malicious" and "false" accusation has been made against her and her family in the United States and, while refusing to divulge any details, she said she would leave "no stone unturned" in her mission to track down the person or organisation responsible.[156][157] Scallon was visibly upset and was comforted by other candidates.[158] She met with her lawyers the next day.[159] David Norris expressed sorrow for Scallon and comforted her, also expressing frustration at the general tone of the election campaign and saying the media had libelled him in some of its reports.[160] Scallon told TV3 News on 14 October that a freelance journalist had told her the allegations would appear through the media.[161] Miriam O'Callaghan's treatment of Martin McGuinness resulted in more than 100 complaints to RTÉ.[162] O'Callaghan's RTÉ colleague Pat Kenny said he watched on "with shock and horror because I don't think I've ever seen a politician ever interviewed on radio before and more or less called a murderer. That was kind of shocking."[163] McGuinness himself also expressed disappointment with O'Callaghan.[164]

Gallagher's campaign suffered a severe setback on 24 October when, in the last televised debate before the election, he admitted collecting a €5,000 cheque from someone he described as a "convicted criminal and fuel smuggler", for a Fianna Fáil fundraiser event which gave access to the then Taoiseach, Brian Cowen after being questioned on the matter by Martin McGuinness.[165][166] Gallagher had been the frontrunner in an opinion poll at this point.[167] The donation was later revealed to be from businessman Hugh Morgan. Gallagher subsequently denied collecting a cheque from Morgan, but refused to answer questions on an illegal director's loan of €82,829, which had also been raised in the 24 October televised debate.[168] After this performance Gallagher's campaign was compared to Devon Loch's fall at the winning post in the 1956 Grand National.[8] He was reported to have been left "shell-shocked" afterwards.[169] Gallagher cancelled his planned meet-the-people visits the following day so that he could tour broadcasters and attempt to explain his behaviour.[170] On 7 March 2012, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) upheld a complaint against RTÉ relating to the broadcasting of the tweet that derailed Gallagher's presidential campaign.[171]

Eventual winner Michael D. Higgins was pursued by his past links to the Fianna Fáil party, and admitted on 13 October that he had been elected chairman of the UCG Fianna Fáil university cumann in 1966.[172] While at university in the United States he had, he admitted, smoked marijuana.[172] However, media reports said he was "spared the intense grilling Miriam O'Callaghan meted out to some of the others" during the Prime Time debate.[173]

List of debates
Date Broadcaster Moderator Language
30 September 2011[174] RTÉ Ryan Tubridy English
4 October 2011[175] TV3 Vincent Browne English
11 October 2011[176][177] Today FM Matt Cooper English
12 October 2011[153][156] RTÉ Miriam O'Callaghan English
18 October 2011[178][179] TG4 Páidí Ó Lionáird Irish/English[180]
22 October 2011[181] RTÉ Radio 1 Charlie Bird English
24 October 2011[182] Newstalk Ivan Yates English
24 October 2011[183] RTÉ Pat Kenny English

Campaign spending

In February 2012 the Standards in Public Office Commission published the candidates' returns for campaign donations and election expenses.[184] Candidates who receive more than 25% of a quota (i.e. 12.5% of the total votes; 221,471 votes) at any stage are entitled to a refund of election expenses to a maximum of €200,000.[185] Three candidates received the maximum refund allowed; the other four had too few votes and received no refund.[184] Only donations above €638 need be reported, making the reported totals less meaningful.[186] Gay Mitchell had stated his campaign would be funded by a Fine Gael members' lottery.[186]

Candidate Agent Reportable donations Expenses Reimbursement
Higgins, Michael D.Michael D. Higgins O'Driscoll, KevinKevin O'Driscoll 121,421.53 359,935.48 200,000
Gallagher, SeanSean Gallagher Lee, CathalCathal Lee 28,759.00 323,318.45 200,000
McGuinness, MartinMartin McGuinness Quinn, TreasaTreasa Quinn 4,348.00 302,563.47 200,000
Norris, DavidDavid Norris McCabe, LiamLiam McCabe 17,929.98 331,974.89 Nil
Scallon, Dana RosemaryDana Rosemary Scallon Kelly, BrendanBrendan Kelly 12,017.24 59,591.47 Nil
Mitchell, GayGay Mitchell Curran, TomTom Curran Nil 527,152.01 Nil
Davis, MaryMary Davis King, RonanRonan King 120,095.00 414,041.32 Nil

Opinion polls

Date Source Polling Agency Davis Gallagher Higgins McGuinness Mitchell Norris Scallon
25 September 2011 The Sunday Business Post[187] RED C 13% 11% 18% 16% 13% 21% 6%
6 October 2011 The Irish Times[188] Ipsos MRBI 12% 20% 23% 19% 9% 11% 6%
6 October 2011 Paddy Power[189] RED C 9% 21% 25% 16% 10% 14% 5%
16 October 2011 The Sunday Business Post[190] RED C 4% 39% 27% 13% 8% 7% 2%
22 October 2011 The Sunday Business Post[191] RED C 2% 40% 26% 13% 6% 10% 3%
23 October 2011 The Irish Times[192] Ipsos MRBI 3% 40% 25% 15% 6% 8% 3%


Voting took place between 07:00 and 22:00 (IST) on 27 October.[193]

As usual, voting began on certain offshore islands a few days before the rest of the country. On the Donegal islands of Arranmore, Gola, Inishfree, Inisbofin and Tory, voting took place on 24 October between 11:00 and 15:00 (11:00 and 19:30 on Arranmore). On 25 October, the Mayo islands of Clare Island, Inishbiggle and Inishturk went to the polls; while the Galway islands of Inishbofin and the Aran Islands voted on 26 October between 07:00 and 22:00.[194]

After 15 hours of voting, ballot boxes were secured, with nationwide counting of votes beginning the following morning after presidential votes were separated from constitutional referendum votes (which were due to be counted later).[195][196][197][198]


Counting of votes began at 9:00 on 28 October. The fourth and final count was completed by 15:56 on 29 October.[199]

Tallies from early on 28 October showed that Higgins was likely to receive the largest number of first preferences. Speaking at the RDS count centre, David Norris conceded and sent Higgins his congratulations, calling him "a bit of a maverick like myself".[200][201][202] Norris mentioned on radio that he had been "collecting apologies in the newspapers" and that they "told the truth in the end".[200]

Irish presidential election, 2011[203][204]
Party Candidate Nominated by % 1st Pref Count 1 Count 2Count 3Count 4
Labour Party Michael D. Higgins Oireachtas: Labour Party 39.6 701,101 730,480 793,128 1,007,104
Independent Seán Gallagher County and City Councils 28.5 504,964 529,401 548,373 628,114
Sinn Féin Martin McGuinness Oireachtas: Sinn Féin & Independents 13.7 243,030 252,611 265,196  
Fine Gael Gay Mitchell Oireachtas: Fine Gael 6.4 113,321 127,357 136,309  
Independent David Norris County and City Councils 6.2 109,469 116,526    
Independent Dana Rosemary Scallon County and City Councils 2.9 51,220      
Independent Mary Davis County and City Councils 2.7 48,657      
Electorate: 3,191,157   Valid: 1,771,762   Spoilt: 18,676 (1.0%)   Quota: 885,882   Turnout: 1,790,438 (56.1%)
First preference vote
Rosemary Scallon
Final percentage

Constituency results


Fine Gael's General Secretary Tom Curran called it a "bad day" for the party, adding "From early on the electorate had the view that Gay (Mitchell) was out of the race and that it was a two person race".[201] According to tallies, Mitchell received only about one in eight votes from his previous constituency of Dublin South-Central.[205][206] Mitchell performed considerably worse than Fine Gael's 1990 candidate Austin Currie which was one of the party's most unsuccessful election campaigns.[207] Higgins received a hero's welcome at a victory reception on 30 October at Eyre Square, Galway; approximately 5,000 people turned out to welcome him home.[208][209][210][211]


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