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Saturday 21 September 2019

Kirsty Blake Knox: 'RTÉ ensured Michael D. Higgins would become the ninth President of Ireland'

State Visit to Australia by President of Ireland and Sabina Higgins Pic Maxwell's
State Visit to Australia by President of Ireland and Sabina Higgins Pic Maxwell's
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

Arguably, it was RTÉ who ensured that Michael D. Higgins would become the ninth President of Ireland.

In the run-up to the 2011 Presidential election, he was far behind Seán Gallagher in the opinion polls. The final hurdle for all seven candidates was that infamous live television debate on Pat Kenny’s Frontline programme.

During its transmission, the Sinn Fein candidate, Martin McGuinness, accused Gallagher of having received funding from a “convicted criminal and fuel smuggler”. That might seem like  an incongruous accusation from anyone in Sinn Fein, but it helped to derail Gallagher's campaign. A year later, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland upheld a complaint by Gallagher against RTE for its lack of editorial control. But, by then, Higgins had his feet firmly under the table at Aras an Uachtarain.

Since then, he is generally accepted to have been an excellent President.

There have, admittedly, been some controversies in the past six years. When Fidel Castro died, President Higgins was the first Head of State to pay tribute to the Cuban dictator describing his as a “giant among men”. The Christmas message which the President delivered in 2013 was also criticised for its failure to mention Christianity or the religious nature of the festival.

However, in general, Irish people both at home and abroad not only respect Higgins’ ideological perspective, they also feel a great deal of affection towards him in an avuncular sort of way.

He is, after all, the only Irish president to have inspired a line of knitted tea cosies (Michael Tea Higgins), or to have starred  in  a children’s picture book.

As he approaches the final year of Presidency, everyone is eager to know if he intends to serve a second term in the Phoenix Park.

Whenever this question has been raised during his 24 day State Visit to Australia, President Higgins has fudged it somewhat.

He has stressed the need to focus all his attention on “the job at hand”, and has reiterated that it will be late Spring before he lets us know which way the wind blows. 

Some cynics have suggested this stalling is a deliberate strategy, designed to impact on the chances of rival candidates in the race.

I have spent the past ten days following the Prez on his tour of Western Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and New South Wales, and I don’t believe that his reluctance to state his intentions can be construed as tactical game-playing. 

It seems to me that President Higgins genuinely seems to be in the middle of weighing it all up. He may even have conflicting desires in this regard.

In 2011, when Higgins last launched a campaign he was a sprightly 70 year old. Back then when the issue of his age was raised smiled and replied “It’s not the years in the life but the life in the years”. And quite right too.

But staring into another seven year term as a soon-to-be octogenarian may prove to be a different ball game altogether.

Make no mistake - being President is a demanding and exhausting role.

When he leaves Australia, the President will have travelled to four territories and six cities. He will have met with four Governors, a Prime Minister, countless Ambassadors, a string of State Premieres, a host of aboriginal elders – not to mention hundreds of ordinary members of the Irish communities in Australia.

He will have presented GAA trophies, shaken thousands of hands, made dozens of official speeches and many more unofficial comments. He will have gone to black tie events, watched movies, visited grave yards, laid wreaths, unveiled statues, taken part in indigenous ceremonies, wandered around botanical gardens, and attended numerous lunches and tete-a-tetes.

Between this and the five days in New Zealand, he will have clocked up nearly a month on the road - without a single day off. I am less than half his age, and I am reeling from the non-stop travel.

President Higgins says the support he receives from the people he meets helps to revitalise him, and he has plenty of that Down Under.

Yesterday, he was the guest of honour at Enterprise Ireland’s business lunch.

Waiters had to navigate their way though a crammed line of very serious entrepreneurs, all waiting to take a selfie taken with the Prez.

And at Melbourne University last week, the Chancellor of the college, Mr Allan Myers, suggested dropping the words honoris causa from President Higgins doctorate.

There can be no doubt as to the warmth of the reception he has received, or the genuine way in which he has connected with the ex-pats here. 

That may partially be down to his his own experience of being separated from his family. At the age of five, he was sent at the to live on his unmarried uncle and aunt's small farm in Clare. He did not re-unite properly with the rest of his family until he was 19, and has spoken of the “wrenching experience” of only seeing them once a month.

If he does decide to opt for a second term, there are some pitfalls he needs to avoid: his public speaking, for example, can run the risk of being a little long-winded.

He might on occasion benefit from a tighter edit of his script.  But when he is at his best he is both passionate and charming: respectful, witty and wise.

It's this side of his character that makes the possibility of a second Presidential term his for the taking - should be decide that is what he really wants.

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