Monday 16 September 2019

Ivan Yates: Why the Presidential stitch-up is unravelling - with FG and FF caught on the hop

Pushed the boundaries: President Michael D Higgins at Aras an Uachtarain
Pushed the boundaries: President Michael D Higgins at Aras an Uachtarain
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

Perhaps it is just the heat, but everything about the political landscape looks out of focus and hazy; and if anything the picture will get more obscure this autumn.

Things that should be clear look completely out of sync. Thus we could be facing a jarring and abrupt general election, and be forced to accept a presidential coronation for Michael D Higgins. It's time to get under the skin of party leaders and try to figure out what the hell is going on.

The decision by Fianna Fáil to endorse the re-election of Mr Higgins is mind-blowing. Remember, Fianna Fáil hasn't won a presidential election in more than 20 years (1997). It has also been out of power since 2011. A startling lack of ambition to chase this top office tells you all you need to know about its lowered expectations. Even had it been informed by a determination to block a run at the Park by Bertie at all costs, it still would not make sense.

No such lack of hunger is evident in Sinn Féin. Watch this space, media, party and establishment groupthink seldom keeps pace with events. The cosy consensus of there being no alternative to Michael D needs to be punctured. For some reason there seems to be an acceptance that his sense of entitlement to an unopposed second term ought not be challenged within Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour.

Can we take a step back to another time and the reappointment of Giovanni Trapattoni as our national football team coach in 2011? We'd just won group qualification to the Euro finals. By now, Trapp was an elderly veteran, his achievements over the previous four decades delivered a contract renewal. The truth was that he'd passed his sell-by date.

Within two years the public mood soured. His contract was terminated in 2013. The FAI's decision backfired. It should've waited until the Euro finals was over before rushing to endorse the status quo.

On October 26, there will be a presidential contest, along with referendums to remove blasphemy and a woman's place in the home from the Constitution.

At least one opponent to Mr Higgins will be nominated. The stalking horses are currently the increasingly likeable and courageous Senator Gerard Craughwell, and another outsider, Kevin Sharkey. This field is set to change.

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Presidential hopeful Gerard Craughwell. Photo: Tom Burke

I believe Senators Pádraig Ó Céidigh and Frances Black are likely to enter the race. They're both credible candidates with successful careers. Their backgrounds in community work/volunteerism match the credentials of both Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese when they, too, embarked on what looked like slender prospects of seeking a candidacy to the Áras.

Ó Céidigh (61) has similarities with Seán Gallagher, who went so close in 2011. His careers include business, education, accountant, solicitor, and community activist, Entrepreneur of the Year, fluent Gaelic speaker, board member of Croke Park, and Galway Person of the Year.

He was appointed by Enda Kenny as one of the Taoiseach's 11 senators. As chairman of the joint Oireachtas committee to resolve the thorny water charges debacle, he displayed considerable political skill.

Frances Black (58) is one of the country's most successful singers. Since the early days with The Black Family and De Dannan, she has enjoyed numerous hits. Her recording of 'Wall of Tears' on 'A Woman's Heart' made the album one of the best-selling of all time here. She has been involved in global tours as both a soloist and in collaboration with other world-class acts. But, there's more.

For an Independent to achieve senate election at her first attempt on a political panel was rare. She is also a qualified addiction counsellor. She previously worked in the Rutland addiction centre, and she has also established The Rise Foundation to provide care/counselling for alcohol, drug and gambling addicts. Ireland's relationship with the demon drink never ceases to provide compelling campaign narratives.

There's other potential candidates to the slate who might provide choice against yesterday's man.

Katherine Zappone (64) is a formidable individual with a remarkable personal story.

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Katherine Zappone, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Formerly an American citizen, she was a founder of An Cosán - providing transformative education and opportunity to 2,000 women in disadvantaged areas of west Dublin. Protégées include Senator Lynn Ruane.

Ms Zappone displayed tenacity and courage, along with her late wife Ann Louise Gilligan, in fighting the Revenue Commissioners and the State through the courts over LGBT rights. As an Independent Senator, TD and Children's Minister, she's been pivotal to constitutional reforms on marriage equality and abortion.

So any notions there are no suitable alternative presidential candidates to the incumbent betray insider arrogance. Bryan Dobson and Brendan O'Carroll are two who might offer glittering futures rather than pasts.

But modern Ireland needs women who can champion contemporary causes such as gender discrimination, as reflected in the cervical cancer and adoption scandals. Unsurprisingly, Mary Lou McDonald sniffs a Sinn Féin opportunity.

Independents and Sinn Féin have the necessary nominating firepower.

Fianna Fáil may ultimately rue appearing flat-footed.

Opinion polls reflect a softening of public support for Michael D to break his previous "one-term" promises. It's declined from 75pc to 52pc over the past year. That was without the certainty of a contest. The appearance of credible, confirmed challengers will significantly change scenarios.

Meanwhile, the 'goading game' between Leo and Micheál about a September election becomes ever more petulant. Mr Martin's party is in a bind - how to transcend sustaining FG in office, to replacing it.

The Confidence and Supply Arrangement (CSA) provides Leo Varadkar with a one-way populist power-supply.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil must take all the flak for the fallout in the form of blame. Fianna Fáil divisions over the Eighth Amendment campaign served to further weaken the party's claims to government.

The central issue in this phoney personal spat appears to be whether dialogue to negotiate any renewal of the CSA should take place during the summer recess or after its expiry, at the end of the year.

Fine Gael claims the former is necessary to provide certainty of government stability to meet Budget and Brexit challenges by the year-end. Fianna Fáil needs to change gear from acquiescence to assertiveness over the same period, re-affirming that the CSA text is secure until early 2019.

But both parties will have completed their election campaign preparations of selection conventions and policy manifestos by October. Neither leader wants to be blamed for causing the election.

Therefore the next electoral battle should be about our next president.

The old foes' preoccupation with each other allows others to seize the opportunity of providing us with options to choose the new first citizen.

The presidential stitch-up is starting to unravel. I suspect those who challenge this collusion borne out of convenience and expediency could be well rewarded.

Irish Independent

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