Eire’s presidential contest is more than a political melee—it’s a referendum on the nation’s character.

By Michael Brendan Dougherty | October 17, 2011

After Ireland’s incredible economic fall, the country has lost faith that politics can solve their problems. Hope has migrated to the possibility that Facebook, Google, and other tech companies will soon move their server farms from Asia to Eire. Until then, however, Ireland has the comfort of an Oct. 27 presidential election that contains all the intrigue of a referendum on the nation’s identity.

Consider some of the late drama. Sinn Fein’s candidate, Martin McGuinness, stepped down as first deputy minister of Northern Ireland to run for the Republic’s presidency. McGuinness is a former commander of the IRA, yet his popularity in the North has risen as quickly as it has everywhere else. But the man who held a Thompson machine gun on Bloody Sunday was recently confronted over his role in “the troubles” by David Kelly, the son of a soldier who was killed in 1983 while trying to rescue two businessmen who were kidnapped by the IRA. He accused McGuinness of knowing the names of the killers and having been on the IRA’s army council. McGuinness’s candidacy recalls the divisions and aspirations of one generation past.

Then there is the candidate of a more distant past, of a religious and emigrant Ireland. Independent candidate Dana Rosemary Scallon, who first came to prominence in her country 1970 by winning the Eurovision Song Contest. Scallon is a devout Catholic who moved with her family to Birmingham, Alabama in the 1980s and hosted religious programs on the Eternal Word Television Network before returning to Ireland and becoming a socially conservative member of the European Parliament. She has made Irish sovereignty her major campaign issue, brandishing the recently rejected European Constitution in her hands as if it were shrapnel from a distant war Ireland ought to avoid.

Some members of her family, feeling economic pressure, have recently emigrated back to America, eliciting questions about her commitment to the nation. She has offered to renounce her U.S. citizenship. In the first candidates’ debate she decried questions that painted her as a “mouthpiece for the Church”—a surprise to many viewers who believe that she rather obviously volunteered for that role.

And then there is modern Ireland represented by David Norris, the country’s first openly gay politician and campaigner for gay rights. He overturned the laws that condemned Oscar Wilde. Norris has given voice to Ireland’s frustration with the clerical abuse scandal, but he dropped out of the race when it was revealed he had defended a former boyfriend, an Israeli activist, who was on trial for statutory rape of a 15-year old Palestinian boy. Norris had also spoken previously in praise of “Classical pedophilia as practiced by the Greeks” and said he “would have greatly relished the prospect of an older, attractive, mature man taking me under his wing, [and] lovingly introducing me to sexual realities.”

Even so, the press has rallied to him. The Irish Independent has said it is “neither Christian, fair or in the true spirit of any republic” to criticize those remarks. And the Irish Times wrote that discussing these pro-man-on-teenager comments was itself evidence of a “prejudice… notably the implied slur that gay people represent a threat to the young.” Norris’s support in the polls has actually increased since the scandal broke, and he recently rejoined the contest. His campaign’s focus on social networking and promise of a new modern nation has drawn comparisons to Barack Obama, who is beloved in Ireland.

Polling has been extremely volatile among all seven candidates, who besides the above include Labour’s Michael Higgins, Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell, and independent candidates Mary Davis and Sean Gallagher. Mitchell should have been the frontrunner as the man standing for the center-right party that has benefited most politically from the plunging economy.

Notably absent in this election is any champion of Fianna Fail, the center-left party once led by Irish revolutionary Eamon de Valera that had dominated politics in Ireland since its creation. After being blamed for the nation’s economic mismanagement, the party decided it was better to abstain from this contest than have their brains beaten in. Fianna Fail had accidentally blown up Irish politics when they decided to save the Irish banks from bankruptcy by putting taxpayers on the hook for all their debt to German financial institutions. While Greece and Spain writhe in agony and plead for more and more bailouts, Ireland felt so guilty about its recent prosperity that the political class embarked on a harsh course of austerity—tax increases and dramatic spending cuts—to keep German banks solvent and save the euro.

But if Fianna Fail is absent, something of its founder haunts Ireland now.

During the years of the boom, Eamon de Valera’s increasingly conservative vision for the nation, laid out in a 1948 radio address extolling an independent Ireland that “valued material wealth only as a basis for right living,” was so regularly denounced from end to end of the political and intellectual classes that it was regularly misquoted as dreaming “comely maidens dancing at the crossroads.” The modern left and right both hated the later Valera’s traditionalism—that was the backward Ireland that robbed its people of the twin revolutions of the 1960s and 1980s, of social liberation and economic liberalization.

“Dev” would weep now. Internal restraints were given up and now external ones are imposed. The Church has been largely discredited. The young are emigrating at rates not seen since the great famines, but they no longer join each other in ethnic enclaves. And in the chase for something more than the “frugal comfort” he preached, the Irish have lost their political independence once again, instead of chafing under orders from 10 Downing Street, the Irish have meekly indentured themselves to Deustche Bank. And this time there will be no rebel songs about account managers putting Irish men against the wall.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is an American Conservative contributing editor.