Northern Ireland

Celebrity names prominent in Irish presidential race

Martin Sheen
Image caption A Facebook campaign proposing Martin Sheen for president has attracted thousands of followers.

The cast list of names associated with the Irish presidency is fast turning the race for the highest office in the land into an episode of I'm a Celebrity - how about me?

The race started soberly enough. In Fine Gael a contest between political heavyweights saw MEP Gay Mitchell come out on top.

Over in the Labour party, veteran politician Michael D Higgins won his party's nomination, some respected independents entered the fray and there was a clear people's favourite in the form of David Norris.

But with the departure of David Norris (due to his plea for clemency for his former lover convicted of statutory rape) there was a vacancy for the people's favourite.

That's where we left familiar territory and entered what could only be described as uncharted political waters.

First up, 77-year-old Gay Byrne, a broadcasting institution, kept the nation guessing for over a week, garnering the kind of publicity and attention the other candidates could only dream of.

But after much will he/won't he, the former chat show host withdrew his name from consideration.

Image caption Micheal O Muircheartaigh is considering running for the presidency

So as one long-serving RTE presenter steps out, another, even more seasoned, broadcaster steps in - Micheal O Muircheartaigh.

A much-loved sports commentator, he said he has been approached by politicians and has support from business people.

Although he will be 81 shortly, he doesn't believe his age is an impediment and he'll make his decision on running next week.

Indeed age does not seem to be a factor in the people's longing for "anyone but a politician for president".

Actor Martin Sheen is 71 and so far over 3,000 people have joined a Facebook page calling for the man who portrayed the fictional President Bartlett in TV's The West Wing to bring his Oval Office experience to Aras an Uachtarain (the President's house).

Other names bandied about recently include journalist and broadcaster Olivia O'Leary, RTE news reader Sharon Ni Bheolain, businessman Feargal Quinn, historian Joe Lee and former prison governor John Lonergan.

So how has the race for the presidency become such a free-for-all?

The office of President used to be seen as a retirement home for politicians until Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese proved it could be so much more.

The package is attractive - travel the world, beautiful house, be part of the historical record - but it is also a demanding role with a serious constitutional element.

And at a time when Ireland's image abroad needs all the help it can get, it is more important than ever to get the right candidate.

With a month to go until the closing date for the nomination of candidates, those who have so far declared (Gay Mitchell (Fine Gael), Michael D Higgins (Labour), Mary Davis (Ind) and Sean Gallagher (Ind)) can only watch and wait to see who their newest competitors might be.

And with Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail yet to pick a contender, the eventual winner may not even have stepped onto the field.