Thursday 30 March 2017

All-conkering Higgins goes nuts as he engages in hand-to-hand combat

Presidential candidate Michael D Higgins plays Colm McEntee at conkers during canvassing in Airfield, Dundrum, Dublin
Presidential candidate Michael D Higgins plays Colm McEntee at conkers during canvassing in Airfield, Dundrum, Dublin
Fine Gael's presidential hopeful Gay Mitchell leaves RTE studios yesterday after being interviewed on 'This Week'
Mary Davis (left) with bookmaker Ellen Martin at Limerick Racecourse yesterday

MICHAEL D Higgins has gone bonkers. Conkers Bonkers, that is. With 18 days still to go in the presidential race, all the old chestnuts have already been tried in terms of photo opportunities.

Consequently, some bright spark in the Labour candidate's team evidently decided to give the campaign a postmodern twist by having their man photographed at a festival of old chestnuts. So, yesterday afternoon Higgins abandoned his lifelong commitment to anti-war causes and gleefully engaged in hand-to-hand combat.

Conkers Bonkers is billed as a highlight of the autumn calendar at Airfield, an urban farm barely a hen's trot from the Dundrum Shopping Centre. The day is an annual celebration of what the organisers describe as the "endless fun" that can be had with conkers.

In truth, however, the end approaches very swiftly indeed. Apart from the classic game of conkers itself -- a sport at which all-comers were invited to compete for the title of Ultimate Conkers Champion -- the other chestnut-based pursuits provided are somewhat lacking in pizzazz. Pretty soon, most of the kids present resorted to firing conkers at each other.

In keeping with what has been the relentlessly sedate tone of his campaign, Higgins went only very mildly bonkers. These days, protocol and propriety have become preoccupations for a politician who would once have presented himself as a man of action rather than a stickler for decorum.

He never misses an opportunity to remind us of his intimate familiarity with the Constitution, and the presidential powers stipulated therein. He seemed equally determined to stress his respect for the etiquette of conkers. "I remember it as a very emotional sport," he declared as he signed the visitors' book.

Though Higgins reckons it is over half a century since he last swung a conker in anger, he spoke with considerable authority about the game's rules, and the most advantageous angles at which the string can be held. However, his first bout ended in annihilation and his conker was knocked clean away. Catastrophe was then narrowly averted as Higgins stilled his arm just as a child stuck his head directly in the line of fire, causing a sharp intake of breath from watching Labour activists. "I concede," Higgins proclaimed, a statesmanlike decision averting the risk of real bloodshed.

Having concocted the wheeze of the Airfield visit, his handlers missed a trick and should really have made more of the similarities between conkers and the candidate. Conkers, after all, are deceptively tough. They may be small but they pack a powerful punch. They harden with age. Of course, they are also nuts -- and it was probably this quality that discouraged the backroom tacticians from making too much of the comparison.

Higgins' greatest weakness as a campaigner is his tendency to waffle. Fortunately, a stroll through pleasantly bucolic surroundings on a Sunday afternoon offered few speech-making opportunities so public reaction was overwhelmingly positive. He was greeted by a steady stream of predominantly older citizens who shook his hand and wished him well. Several greeted him in Irish and, for many, his fluency in the first national language is clearly one of his chief selling points. It's a skill he now takes care to mention in almost every interview.

Higgins concluded his visit to Airfield with a hearty salad lunch in the outdoors dining area of the cafe. Seated at the table, he became more animated and expansive than he had appeared during the walkabout. He insisted that he had enjoyed every aspect of the campaign -- even the sillier electioneering stunts -- and revels in the claim that he has clocked up over 26,000km thus far in his nationwide tour.

He appears confident that he will repel the challenge mounted by Sean Gallagher, his closest rival according to the opinion polls. Though careful to couch his remarks in diplomatic language, he is dismissive of Gallagher's claim that the presidency can be used as an agency for job creation. The president, Higgins says, is not a trade minister.

It was an argument he expressed in what's best described as a nutshell as he posed for photographs with some of the day's triumphant contestants. "You can only be inspirational as president," Higgins proclaimed, with a mock pomposity that sounded virtually indistinguishable from the real deal. "You can't be expected to become an actual conkers champion yourself."

Irish Independent

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