Tuesday 18 September 2018

President must be open on his intentions for a second term

There was no ambiguity about only serving one term when Michael D Higgins was elected, says Gerard Craughwell

TRUMPET: President Michael D Higgins with Brian Cott and students from Music Generation in Cork City Library yesterday for the Cork Life Long Learning Festival. Photo: Darragh Kane
TRUMPET: President Michael D Higgins with Brian Cott and students from Music Generation in Cork City Library yesterday for the Cork Life Long Learning Festival. Photo: Darragh Kane

Gerard Craughwell

During the 2011 presidential election the then candidate Michael D Higgins gave the people of Ireland an absolute assurance that he would serve one term only. When he was asked about his intentions his answer was calculated to leave the electorate in no doubt as to what they were being asked to vote for.

Now, as his term draws to a close, he seems unwilling to stand by that assurance.

Many have said he is entitled to change his mind and of course he is with respect to many things. However, the President is a scholar who has a better understanding of the English language than most. He was, at the time of the election, a very experienced politician having served as a Galway city councillor, Senator, TD and Minister. He chose to make his views known to the people of Ireland in a way that was unquestionably final and complete - there was no room for ambiguity and he knew that.

Changing his position now is not a simple change of mind, it is a complete reversal of the terms under which he was elected and those who elected him are, at the very least, entitled to be provided with the rationale for this.

Across the wider democratic world politics have been debased and it is unmfulfilled promises made during elections that are part of that debasing..

In the [not so good] old days the election promise was accepted more in hope than in expectation. Much has changed in Irish life thanks to education. Today people expect that if a person gives their word they mean it.

Michael D Higgins in 2011 knew that if he did not mean what he was saying he could have provided a vague non-committal type answer.

As the 'first among equals', the President of this Republic must think long and hard about the implications of changing his mind now. The people look to those in high office to set standards for the rest of us to aspire to.

President Higgins's own ethics initiative sought to explore themes which were important to our shared lives. One such theme was the restoration of trust in our institutions. The office of president sits at the pinnacle of these institutions and, as such, the holder of that office must do nothing to undermine that trust placed in him or her by the people.

Currently the President's supporters are bending the ears of political correspondents suggesting they know what is in the mind of Michael D Higgins. We are told that the President has been hinting at a second term.

For example, in London the President said: "My task is not yet finished, and I have a full programme for the rest of the year, indeed my commitment might go well beyond that."

The simple fact is, no President's commitment may go beyond his or her term of office. This kite- flying to elicit a supportive second-term reaction from the media and the public harks back to a time in Irish politics we all hoped was well and truly behind us.

President Higgins is a well-seasoned political campaigner. If he wants to run for a second term then he needs to come out now and say so.

The President well knows that challengers need to appoint election agents, raise funds and build an election team. He also knows that few candidates will declare a run until the President declares his position. Making his intentions known now is the right thing to do, it is the ethical thing to do and it is nothing less than the Michael D Higgins of 2004 would have demanded himself.

When speaking at the Gaisce awards in 2014, President Higgins stated that ethics must now be at the centre of public life.

He said: "What a contribution it would be to our sense of identity, and our reputation internationally, if Ireland became a name associated with an ethical Republic."

Clearly the motivation behind the President of Ireland's ethics initiative was to build a roadmap towards the society that would sustain this ethical Republic. The President's report speaks of the need for a more deliberative democracy and calls for a debate on political participation, active citizenship and political reform.

Perhaps one way to advance the aspirations contained in the President's ethics initiative would be to open up the discussion on the 2018 election for President of Ireland - and this discussion will only take place once the President kick-starts the process by declaring his intentions with respect to a second term.

The time has come to move away from the politics of old, and move forward to an Ireland where the citizens' interests purely motivate those seeking political office.

Gerard P Craughwell is an Independent Senator who has stated his intention of standing for the presidency to ensure there is an election

Sunday Independent

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