Sunday 8 December 2019

Fionnán Sheahan: President Higgins wants seven more years - but what's the point of a second term?

President Michael D Higgins. Photo: Damien Eagers
President Michael D Higgins. Photo: Damien Eagers

Fionnan Sheahan

There's an old trick in students union politics: float your name out there early for a position you are running for to scare off any strong opponents. Works most times.

As Henry Kissinger once noted: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”

The same goes for the positions being contested by their students.

Michael D Higgins isn’t seeking to become auditor of the Poetry and Literature Society in NUI Galway.

He’s running for the highest office in the land. He occupies it at the moment so he ought to know it deserves better than to be turned into a political plaything.

Whether the President believes he is demeaning the office with his dilly-dallying on announcing his intention to run for a second term is not the point. The mere validity of the accusation is enough to do the damage.

Last weekend, ‘The Irish Times’ reported the President has signalled his intent to seek seven more years.

President Higgins office say he will announce his plans in July.

The worst kept secret in politics will be revealed in the coming weeks so, as the President goes back on his word of only staying for one term.

No big deal.

Circumstances change.

The absence of a heavy-hitting opponent is both a cause and a consequence of President Higgins’ plans for a second term.

President Michael D Higgins. Photo: Gerry Mooney
President Michael D Higgins. Photo: Gerry Mooney

His name has been doing the rounds for some years now.

The party system is perfectly happy with Michael D going again.

An incumbent President gives them a chance to sit this one out and simple endorse the status quo.

After the disaster of 2011, Fine Gael has no appetite to go down the Áras route again.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has his eyes firmly on the next general election.

He would be forced to run a party grandee.

He’s not really one to doff his cap in that direction.

Varadkar is that curious contradiction in politics: the leader of the party who is not accepted by the old guard.

He’s not exactly in the same league as Jeremy Corbyn or Donald Trump, for that matter.

Fianna Fáil is still in recovery and many of its prominent flag bearers are still tarnished by the economic crash.

God only knows what a vote amongst grassroots members would throw up as a candidate. Hence Micheál Martin is backing President Higgins.

Sinn Féin ought to view a presidential election is an opportunity to advance their brand.

Except Gerry Adams is their obvious candidate.

He is a polarising figure attracting cult loyalty among his supporters and cult hatred among his detractors.

An Adams campaign would inevitably focus on his role as a leading figure in the Provisional IRA during the Troubles.

Mary Lou McDonald spending six weeks defending Adams’ Provo terrorism roll of dishonour isn’t part of the strategy of selling shiny new Sinn Féin to the middle classes.

Best to sit this one out.

The Labour Party are in such a state they would probably struggle with a run for a committee post in the aforementioned Poetry Society in NUI Galway.

A Michael D campaign to support, even if he wasn’t running under a party banner, would give them a positive rallying point for the membership.

Moreover, the political parties are happy with the President.

He’s one of them: a career politician who occupied Leinster House for decades, has done his time, has chalked up his pensions and knows how the game works.

He travels the country speaking at community events and has made enormous efforts to make his Presidency as inclusive as possible. He is articulate, intelligent and makes genuine efforts to connect with the people who he meets and speaks to.

He’s bipartisan, he works the circuit, hosts and reciprocates State visits and doesn’t cause any embarrassment.

Contrary to any view that his presidency would be at odds with the Government of the day, he hasn’t been a handful at all.

There’s the odd vituperative speech about society and the perils of outside forces.

Before the budget two years ago, for example, he suggested the Government should loosen the purse strings and borrow cheap money to fund public services, such as housing and health.

He questioned the need to hold off on public spending when the cost of borrowing is so cheap and claimed sticking to rigid EU fiscal rules should not take precedence over social services.

He said providing housing, health and education are not “wild Bolshevik ideas”.

All generally worthy and populist.

The President appeared to be straying into matters of Government policy, which are outside his remit.

Yet it had no impact and didn’t influence policy-making – even then or now.

Everybody nods in agreement but nobody pays much attention.

President Michael D Higgins is innocuous. He is now the establishment. And the system doesn’t like disruption. Seven more years awaits.

But is running a good garden party the height of our aspirations for our first citizen?

Mary Robinson broke the mould on the Presidency, dragging it into the 21st century.

She also used the office to highlight inequality on the international stage.

Mary McAleese followed suit and is lauded for her contribution to the peace process and focus on reconciliation.

What will President Higgins’ term be remembered for?

At this stage, it appears he will run, but he won’t get a clean uncontested run.

Among the early potential contenders lining up are Senators Gerard Craughwell and Pádraig Ó Céidigh.

Neither would be regarded as a heavyhitter.

To give him his dues though, Craughwell did stand up for democracy before when he exposed the sham of Fine Gael’s cronyism in the infamous 2014 Seanad by-election, which became known as the John McNulty board appointment affair.

It remains a blight on Enda Kenny’s term as Taoiseach and proof that ‘new politics’ is the same as old politics.

Ó Céidigh was drafted in to come up with a solution to the water charges impasse and acquitted himself well.

Any contenders are likely to either get the signatures required within the Oireachtas or else do the rounds of the councils.

President Michael D Higgins will enter the contest as firm favourite.

But what’s the point of his second term?

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