News Shane Coleman

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Higgins has far fewer worries than our former presidents did

Published 26/11/2013 | 01:00

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President Michael D Higgins is a pragmatic politician

IT was Des O'Malley who famously said of Michael D Higgins on his appointment to the cabinet two decades ago that he would "go mad" in office. Higgins, widely regarded as a fine Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, defied such predictions. The maverick, left-wing firebrand proved he could be a pragmatic and nuanced politician.

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But if ever there's a position to test the patience and the political nous of its holder, it's the presidency. Technically, it's the highest office in the State. In practice, it's a largely powerless institution that can leave its occupier feeling frustrated and impotent.

It also has a habit, as Michael D Higgins discovered for the first time last weekend, of throwing up controversy.

The previous four presidents all had their "moments" to varying degrees. Cearbhall O Dalaigh resigned in protest in 1976 at being described as a "thundering disgrace" by Defence Minister Paddy Donegan. His successor Paddy Hillery had to call in political correspondents to brief them following wholly unfounded rumours in Europe that he was having an affair. Mary Robinson became embroiled in a controversy over the redeployment of staff that worked in the Aras. And Mary McAleese found herself at the centre of a major row after she compared the Nazis' hatred of Jews with how Catholics were viewed in Northern Ireland.

So far at least, Michael D Higgins's difficulties are of a more minor nature. But there's no question that the resignation of his chief adviser, Mary van Lieshout, has piqued the interest of the media.

The growing influence of Higgins's executive assistant Kevin McCarthy has been reported as central to tensions in the Aras. McCarthy, who is 33, is a more junior staff member than van Lieshout.

But reports quoted sources close to van Lieshout as saying that she had complained in private about the increasing difficulty in gaining access to the president without first going through McCarthy.

If this is the case, McCarthy has enjoyed something of a meteoric rise. Before serving as Higgins's campaign driver during the presidential election, he was a parliamentary assistant to his first cousin Michael McCarthy, now a TD but then a senator.

Those who know Kevin McCarthy say he is a "good guy" and "hardworking". They say his real strength is probably less about being a political adviser or strategist and more about his ability to work well with the president.

Higgins had a reputation during his time as a TD and minister as not being the easiest to deal with -- few politicians are. Hugely bright and brilliant in many ways but not always easy to be around, was the verdict of some.

But McCarthy, it is said, is very good at managing or handling Higgins. The word is they got on like a house on fire when McCarthy was his driver.

Nor, it should be pointed out, is it particularly unusual for someone without a huge amount of political experience to emerge as a valued adviser. The number one quality a politician looks for from his or her adviser is probably trust. They need an ally -- somebody who they know is undeniably on their side and who is rooting for them.

And those who know Higgins say that is very much the case with McCarthy. It should also be said that, according to some reports, sources in the Aras say there are no difficulties among the staff with regard to access to the president.

Clearly, though, the president could have done without the headlines that have followed van Lieshout's resignation. In every place of employment in the country, there are personality clashes and a certain amount of jostling for position. But given the need for the presidency to be preserved from controversy, ideally the office of the president should be far removed from any suggestion of all that.

Life will go on in the Aras. Hillery, Robinson and McAleese all prospered as presidents despite the aforementioned difficulties. Higgins is certainly more mercurial than those three. Some contentious speeches in recent months demonstrate that. But his rock-solid performance as a minister -- and his ability to keep his head during a tumultuous presidential election campaign -- suggest he knows how to meet the challenges that inevitably lie ahead.

SHANE COLEMAN IS POLITICAL EDITOR OF NEWSTALK 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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