Tuesday 18 December 2018

Analysis: The phoney war draws to an end - but is Michael D unbeatable?


President Michael D Higgins with racegoers at the Galway Festival. Photo: Mark Condren
President Michael D Higgins with racegoers at the Galway Festival. Photo: Mark Condren
John Downing

John Downing

With apologies to the great Winston Churchill, we are at "the end of the beginning" in this Áras melodrama. There are a few more pucks left in this before we get the final list of candidates.

But as of now we are looking at five, including President Michael D Higgins, who can nominate himself, and the Sinn Féin runner, most likely to be MEP Liadh Ní Riada. They are followed by the council crew, who are likely to be controversial runner-up in 2011, Seán Gallagher; his fellow television 'Dragon' Gavin Duffy; and mental health campaigner, Senator Joan Freeman.

We cannot rule out late arrivals before nominations close a fortnight from tomorrow, at noon on Wednesday, September 26. But despite the drag of this inevitable "phoney war" in the run-in to this election, which will finally happen on Friday, October 26, the key contenders have emerged.

The central question has remained the same: is outgoing President Michael D Higgins really unbeatable? He has done a very good job over the past seven years, especially in being Ireland's ambassador-in-chief on the international stage.

But a great deal of change can happen over the course of a seven-year term at Áras an Uachtaráin. He entered the last campaign aged 70 in 2011, is now 77, and opponents will be happy to point out that he will be 84 when the new term ends in 2025. There is every chance the outgoing President can carry the age issue, and even bat it back with counter-arguments about ageism. But the more immediate question turns around what kind of campaign he can run.

Can he muster the same energy and aggression he possessed in 2011? Will he take independent direction from campaign professionals after seven years of being constantly deferred to?

In 2011 the Higgins's campaign was the envy of many who engage in political projects. It had the smoothest launch and, bar that serious Seán Gallagher-driven jolt at the end, the deftest landing.

Which brings us to Mr Gallagher, who popped up yesterday and bagged four council nominations in the one day. That is a serious fillip to any campaign.

Seven years ago, he was the runner-up, to many people controversially undone by a strange development in the final televised debate on RTÉ television, which had a big sequel in the law courts. Yet, we must continue to ask where he has been - bar a prolonged and successful sojourn in the law courts - over the past seven years?

He knows the incumbent is the one to beat. But his other rivals could also be formidable campaigners and they have shown an ability to also attract councillors' support.

Gavin Duffy and Joan Freeman can talk a good show. Their campaigning skills remain untested though their ambition is apparent.

All President Higgins's challengers know it is about getting ahead of the pack to avail of transfers. We shall see.

Irish Independent

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