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Cast Of Characters Compete In Irish Elections


An intriguing slate of candidates is vying to be the next president of Ireland. In the mix, a senator who's a prominent gay rights activist, a former IRA commander-turned-politician, also a former pop star who won the Eurovision song contest in 1970.


BLOCK: A record seven candidates will be on the ballot next month. Ronan McGreevy, a reporter with the Irish Times, joins me from Dublin to tick through at least some of them.

Hello, Ronan.

RONAN MCGREEVY: Good afternoon, Melissa.

BLOCK: Now, the frontrunner at this point is the first candidate that I mentioned, Senator David Norris - a James Joyce scholar, also led the campaign for gay rights in Ireland. He withdrew from the race in August, now he's back in. Why did he withdraw?

MCGREEVY: Yes, Melissa, he withdrew earlier this summer because he had written a letter pleading for clemency to the Israeli authorities for an ex-lover of his who had been convicted of statutory rape with a minor. The minor was 15 years of age. His ex-lover claimed that he did not know that this person was under age at the time. And when letter came to light, many in Senator Norris's campaign resigned, stating that he hadn't been completely up front with them about his past.

BLOCK: But now, Senator Norris back in the race. Also in the race, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein. He was jailed for terrorist activities in Northern Ireland in the '70s. Now he's billing himself as a peacemaker who can be trusted. How problematic are his IRA roots there?

MCGREEVY: Well, they're very problematic here in the south, in the Irish Republic. Martin McGuinness has claimed that he's moved on since 1994, when the first IRA ceasefire came into being. He says, you know, I'm a peacemaker. I've left my past behind me. But a lot of people in the south, in particular, have long memories and they're not for really prepared to forgive him for the hundreds and thousands of deaths that the IRA carried out in their campaign of violence over 25 years.

But in the south, Sinn Fein, the party that he represents, are still a relatively minor party. So there is a feeling in the south here that it's too soon for somebody like himself to be elected president.

BLOCK: Who are some of the other candidates you're paying attention to, Ronan?

MCGREEVY: Well, there is Michael D. Higgins, who's the Labor Party candidate. He's a slight favorite, I would say, at this stage; a veteran politician, 70 years of age, left-wing politician who has been bitterly opposed to many aspects of American foreign policy.

There's also Dana Rosemary Scallon, the former pop singer turned conservative politician. A dark horse I would say for the presidency. She's also from the north of Ireland. She's a conservative Catholic. And her hugely successful predecessor, Mary McAleese was similarly a conservative northern Catholic. So she'd have a very good chance.

She was dismissed 14 years ago when she stood as a political tourist, because she was still living in Alabama at the time, working for a Catholic television station there. But she could be in there with a shout.

BLOCK: Now, Ronan, the Irish presidency is largely ceremonial. What is the message from these candidates, especially at a time when the Irish economy has been in such a tailspin?

MCGREEVY: Well, this country has been to hell and back. It's been through the fire, it really has, in terms of there's been a depression in Ireland for the last three years. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs. I know it's similar in the United States, but we have suffered a bigger fall in output than any country in the developed world since the Great Depression of the 1930s. So really, it's a role that's cheering the Irish people up.

Really, he or she is a meter and greeter for Ireland. So it's really about who has got the personality that reflects the personality of the Irish people the most.

BLOCK: Ronan McGreevy was the Irish Times in Dublin. We were talking about the upcoming presidential elections and the Republic of Ireland.

Ronan, thanks so much.

MCGREEVY: Thank you very much, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.