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Saturday 21 October 2017

Michael D romps to victory over stablemates in three-horse race

'You won quite comfortably in the end -- were you surprised by that?" one reporter asked the just-elected Labour nomination for the Presidency.

"No," smiled Michael D Higgins without any hesitation, in what was possibly his briefest-ever reply to a question.

But in the end he had cantered home in this three-horse race without breaking a sweat. He had been the odds-on favourite, but in recent days there was growing speculation that Fergus Finlay was sneaking up on the inside rail, although the third contestant Kathleen O'Meara was still considered the longest of shots.

However, as the Labour clan gathered at the Mansion House for the selection convention yesterday, the mood was more jolly than tense. A few latecomers who galloped into the family photocall on the Mansion House steps (the buachailli dana were TDs Joe Costello and Aodhan O Riordain) were greeted with good-natured cheers from the 54-strong parliamentary party.

And in his opening address, party leader Eamon Gilmore made it clear the first thing on the party agenda was most definitely not a split. There would be total solidarity with the winner.

"The candidate that we select will of course be a candidate for whom we will all campaign," he stressed.

Each of the three candidates had been allocated 10 minutes in which to make their pitch. But that was a forlorn hope on the part of chairperson Brian O'Shea.

Fergus was the briefest, speaking for a Beckett-like 12-and-a-half minutes, Michael D put in a Tolstoy-long 15-and-a-half minutes, while Kathleen clocked up 13-and-a-half minutes.

But each pitch was markedly different. Fergus was first up (he stood beneath a large portrait of Charles Stuart Parnell, and the bearded likeness was frankly quite spooky) and he wasted no time in reeling off his list of achievements, from helping to draft the Downing Street Declaration to writing four bestselling books.

He said it was "easy to be cynical" about the Presidency -- "an office which is the exclusive property of the people, which costs the same to run each year as it costs to build just under 300 yards of motorway and which can yield enormous benefits to the people is frequently dismissed as irrelevant".

The country, Fergus reckoned, needed "a working President -- a President whose sleeves are rolled up every day of the week".

Michael D also enumerated highlights from his lengthy CV. "The first thing I ever worked on was the abolition of the status of illegitimacy," he reminded the room of just how far his work goes back in years. "It is possible to both possess a vision and at the same time achieve practical results," he said.

Naturally for a chap who relishes discourse, Michael D promised that the theme of his campaign would be about "building an inclusive citizenship in a creative society appropriate to a republic", adding that if elected he would preside over "national seminars" on a wide range of topics.

Perhaps it was the solemnity of the occasion -- what Kathleen called "a daunting day" -- and the fact that it was Father's Day, but a few minutes into her speech, the former senator dissolved into tears as she spoke of how the arrival of the IMF last November made her think of how hard her father had worked and how her son had left to find work in Australia.

"Just give me a moment," she asked the room as she struggled for composure.

But in the end the count was a lot shorter than the speeches, with Michael scooping 37 votes to Fergus's 18 and Kathleen's seven.

"I'm very tempted to say, 'Some Father's Day this has turned out to be'," joked Fergus, but he was clearly gutted. However, he rallied long enough to instantly petition Michael for the donation of a piece of land to create a Children's Garden when he won the election.

And the chief executive of Barnardos might be in luck. "It was I who gave the additional land to the zoo in 1996," Michael revealed to laughter from the room.

"I wrote to Uachtarain na hEireann Mary Robinson to explain I was taking a bit of land off the Aras."

Afterwards, Michael couldn't keep the wide beam of delight off his face as he got a congratulatory kiss from his wife Sabina. He's one step closer to a long-cherished ambition, and pooh-poohed any notion that at the age of 70 the job might be too strenuous for him.

Could he match the energy of Mary McAleese? "Oh, I would think so," he grinned.

And it was all done without a drop of Labour blood on the floor of the convention. Fine Gael's presidential dogfight might be a lot gorier.

Irish Independent

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