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Thursday 14 December 2017

'Even under pressure, we kept our focus on strengths'

Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina with their family (from left) John, Alice Mary, Michael and Daniel
Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina with their family (from left) John, Alice Mary, Michael and Daniel

Fiach Kelly Political Correspondent

AFTER years of flirting with the idea, Michael D Higgins finally became a presidential candidate on Sunday, June 19.

His efforts to contest in 2004 came to naught when then Labour leader Pat Rabbitte decided there was no point taking on Mary McAleese because she was widely seen as unbeatable.

But the party rowed in behind Michael D on that Sunday in June, giving their darling their nomination following a vote in Dublin's Mansion House.

Derek Nolan -- who succeeded him as the Labour TD for Galway West -- had championed him in the parliamentary party, which made up the bulk of the electorate to decide who would get the party nod.

The parliamentary party was massively expanded following the general and Seanad elections and Mr Nolan took it upon himself to canvass the newer, younger members.

"I took it on as a job, and I told him I was doing it," Mr Nolan said. "But there was a lot of support there for him already."


Older allies -- like party whip Emmet Stagg, Kildare South TD Jack Wall and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin -- also pressed the case.

It was low key and there were suggestions that rival Fergus Finlay could win. Mr Finlay was consistently seen lobbying around Leinster House, while there was little or no sign of Michael D. It was being put about that the younger TDs were all going Finlay's way.

In the end, Michael D won easily, getting 37 votes to Finlay's 18, with former party senator Kathleen O'Meara, a late entry, coming a distant third with seven votes.

About two weeks after the selection convention, the national campaign committee met for the first time. It comprised 16 people, nominated by Michael D himself and the party. It would meet usually once a week, mostly in the Mansion House.

There were two strands to the campaign: getting Michael D around the country and organising people on the ground in constituencies. A group of Labour loyalists made up the inner circle. Tony Heffernan was a long-time spin doctor for the Labour Party, and was head of its press office until just after the general election.

Mr Heffernan retired rather than assume the role of deputy government press secretary, however, he came out of retirement to work on Michael D's campaign.

Dublin Central TD Joe Costello was director of elections, while Michael D's daughter, Alice Mary Higgins, was joint deputy director of elections with councillor Brian McDowell, who is also a party staffer.

Michael D's programme manager from his time as Arts Minister, Kevin O'Driscoll, was election agent, while Mags Murphy, another party staffer, looked after the logistics of the campaign.

His former parliamentary assistant, Chris O'Grady, helped write the speeches, while supporter Kevin McCarthy was also involved. Another former parliamentary assistant, Michael Treacy, also helped out. Mr Treacy and Michael D's driver were the only campaign members who got paid.

Apart from Alice Mary Higgins, other family members also played key roles. Michael D's wife Sabina was always by his side, and also helped run the campaign in Galway. Their son Daniel also worked on the Galway campaign, which delivered 60pc of the vote in the county; while another son, John, made a campaign video which showed his father through the decades.

But Michael D himself shaped his message, having published his own manifesto in May. It established his themes of the creative society -- a real republic, inclusive citizenship, and pride in being Irish in the world.

Mr Heffernan said he was personally sceptical that they could pull victory off, and was unsure if Labour could build enough on the 20pc achieved in the general election to see Michael D over the line.

But his view of the election changed when he accompanied Michael D on a visit to the Irish community in London at the start of September.


"It wasn't what happened in London, it was the reception he got when he was going through Dublin Airport," he said. "People were coming up saying: 'Delighted you're running, I'll be voting for you and so will everyone in my family.'"

As other candidates became embroiled in controversy, Michael D stuck to his themes and stayed above the fray.

"We always kept the focus on Michael D's strengths," Mr Costello said.

A decision was taken early on not to attack others and maintain a presidential image.

"Even when he was under pressure later on, we didn't do it," Mr Costello said. "It was then a simple straightforward step for people who had concerns about Sean Gallagher to vote for Michael D."

The Gallagher surge a week and a half out caught everyone by surprise, and Michael D himself seemed to believe it was lost. But even as three opinion polls on the final weekend had Gallagher hovering around 40pc, campaign staff felt it was swinging back their way.

Mr Heffernan said he thought "it was coming back to us over that weekend -- some of the Gallagher stuff was starting to gain traction".

A canvass on Dublin's Henry Street -- when Michael D was almost mobbed by voters -- on the last Saturday of the campaign convinced Mr Heffernan the election was there to be won. "In 40 years in politics, I've never seen anything like it," he said. "And then the 'Frontline' just sealed it," added Mr Heffernan, about Mr Gallagher's implosion on the televised debate.

"I firmly believe Michael D would have won even if Martin McGuinness hadn't done what he did," Mr Costello said.

In the end, keeping it steady in a hugely volatile election stood to Michael D -- and sent him to the Phoenix Park.

Irish Independent

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