Tuesday 22 January 2019

The seven-year pitch: Can Michael D truly stay in the Áras?

He said from the start he wanted no more than seven years as President of Ireland but now it seems that's changed. Andrew Lynch asks if Michael D Higgins can swing a second term

Waiting game: Higgins has told several ministers he will run again. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Waiting game: Higgins has told several ministers he will run again. Photo: Gerry Mooney
The President marking Ireland's 60th anniversary of involvement with UN Peacekeeping. Photo: Douglas O'Connor

In August 2011, Michael D Higgins gave an interview to this writer about his bid to become President of Ireland. Asked if his age might be a concern, the 70-year-old Labour candidate protested that he was younger than both Giovanni Trapattoni (then manager of the Irish football team) and Pablo Picasso "when he did his best work". Even so, Higgins was keen to repeat his campaign pledge that if elected, he would only serve one seven-year term in Áras an Uachtaráin.

"Whatever I have to say, I think those seven years should be enough," he concluded in a humorous reference to his reputation for long-windedness, "Even for me."

Today it appears that President Higgins is not quite ready to leave the stage after all. Although there has been no formal announcement yet, virtually everyone in Government Buildings now expects him to break his promise and seek a second term. According to some reports, he has already told several ministers that he will run again and plans to renominate himself as the Constitution allows.

Few political pundits at this stage would bet against Higgins getting his wish. A number of key questions, however, still remain.

The President marking Ireland's 60th anniversary of involvement with UN Peacekeeping. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
The President marking Ireland's 60th anniversary of involvement with UN Peacekeeping. Photo: Douglas O'Connor

Will he be forced to go through the rigours of another national election? If so, can he persuade the voters that his original one-term commitment was not just a cynical ploy? How many people share the concerns of his old friend and former rival Senator David Norris, who argues that a president aged 84 (which Higgins will be in 2025) is simply too old?

Most importantly, could a younger challenger emerge and cause an upset by making the incumbent look stale or hidebound by comparison? Should they take inspiration from a slogan that was briefly considered by Mary Robinson's campaign team in 1990 - 'There's Enough Monuments in the Park Already'?

As things stand, it appears that the two biggest parties in Leinster House are happy to offer President Higgins a free pass. Last week, Micheál Martin threw his weight behind him, openly defying a motion passed at the 2017 Ard Fheis that called for Fianna Fáil to field a candidate of its own. Martin has also confirmed that his TDs, senators and councillors are expressly forbidden from nominating anybody else for the position.

Leo Varadkar apparently feels the same way. The Fine Gael leader has regularly heaped praise on Michael D Higgins, indicating his belief that a presidential race is a distraction the country can do without.

"I think he has done a fabulous job as president," Varadkar said shortly after becoming Taoiseach a year ago. "I have really liked working alongside him. I already lean on his advice and his experience. It is an advantage as a young Taoiseach to have an experienced president to bounce things off and consult with."

Last Tuesday, however, the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald delivered what may well turn out to be a game-changer. While stressing her own personal regard for President Higgins, she declared: "I don't think it's appropriate that the incumbent rolls into another term of office seamlessly." In other words, Sinn Féin now looks more likely than not to put someone forward and will make a final decision at its Ard Comhairle meeting next Saturday. McDonald has already said that Gerry Adams "would freak" at the idea of running himself, but claims that several other names are "in the mix".

If she proves to be as good as her word, then the race will definitely be on - and Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil might soon regret their decision to remain sitting on the sidelines.

Last weekend, the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern officially ruled himself out and suggested that President Higgins was virtually unbeatable. Not everyone, however, agrees.

"The notion that he is some kind of widely adored, avuncular, cuddly poet who everyone loves and admires is a total fantasy of the media's creation," says Keith Redmond, an Independent councillor in Fingal who has previously represented Fine Gael and Renua. "For a sizeable proportion of the population, he doesn't represent their economic, historical or cultural identity."

Redmond is particularly critical of Higgins' fawning tribute to the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in 2016, claiming: "This was akin to Éamon de Valera's offer of condolence on the death of Hitler. It makes him totally unfit to be the voice of the Irish people.

"I simply don't believe [Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil] wouldn't prefer one of their own to be president instead of the incumbent. So instead, I believe they don't think the office is worth spending any time, effort or money campaigning for. It is vital for the sake of the office that there is a campaign, an election and a democratic mandate for whoever will be our president for the next seven years."

What about the possibility of an independent candidate? By endorsing Higgins at such an early stage, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have made it much harder for anyone to win the support of 20 Oireachtas members or four local authorities necessary for a place on the ballot paper.

Even so, at least one man is still determined to try. Senator Gerard Craughwell, a former Irish army sergeant and trade union leader, claims that he is just "three names short" of securing a nomination and has vowed to reach his target "even if hell freezes over".

He also says it would be "a big mistake" for Higgins to seek another term, adding: "The President has done a great job over the last seven years but even some of his most loyal supporters have told me he has nothing more to bring to the role."

The notion of President Craughwell still seems a little far-fetched, but his dogged determination to force a contest has been highly effective in keeping the issue alive.

Dr Maura Adshead, an associate professor in politics and public administration at the University of Limerick, thinks Higgins has been "a great president" but also says it is vital that we have an election.

"Providing the opportunity for this kind of national dialogue, focused more on values and vision than policy and politics, is really important for democracy. It's a bit like a company, revisiting the mission statement and ensuring that the shareholders are still happy with the general direction being taken. Checking back in with the shareholders of 'Ireland Inc' once every seven years doesn't seem too excessive to me.

"I'm not sure if there are any candidates who could beat him… but I wouldn't really feel like a responsible shareholder if I didn't take the chance to find out."

Scare off adversaries

The proverbial dogs in the street now know that Higgins wants to keep his job. His appetite for another three-month round of canvassing, interviews and television debates is much less certain. There is a widespread suspicion that this is why he has delayed his announcement, hoping that the uncertainty will scare off any potential adversaries or persuade them to wait until 2025.

"My decision doesn't affect anyone else's decision," Higgins said in Switzerland last month, "but mine is coming after a lot of thought."

This is something of an understatement, since he has been ducking the question ever since an evasive radio interview with RTÉ's Sean O'Rourke at the National Ploughing Championships last September. The Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice recently summed up the frustrations of many people by telling Michael D to stop "mumbling behind the scenes" and just "come out with it".

Higgins would not be the first Irish head of state to have his contract renewed without another job interview. Seán T O'Kelly was waved through in 1952, despite the attempt of an eccentric Cork-born satirist called Eoin 'The Pope' O'Mahony to take him on. Patrick Hillery was reluctantly persuaded to serve another seven years in 1983, partly because the country was broke and an election seemed like an unnecessary expense. In 2004, Mary McAleese was widely seen as invincible and the political parties all declined to put anyone up against her.

Unfortunately for Higgins, that last example is not one he can use in his favour. He desperately wanted to take McAleese on 14 years ago and was hugely disappointed when the Labour Party's national executive rejected his candidacy by just one vote. Back then he deplored the idea of a president being automatically returned, saying: "I do think there is a great arrogance in a political party saying, 'We shouldn't have a contest,' because that is not for me or the Labour Party to decide… I have a very old-fashioned belief in the robustness of the Irish people."

According to an Irish Times / Ipsos MRBI poll last January, 59pc of voters say they will back Higgins again while 31pc want to see a new face in the Áras.

"The only person who would come within an ass's roar of beating him would be Daniel O'Donnell," was reportedly the assessment of one minister at a recent cabinet meeting (this intriguing prospect has already been ruled out by the singer's wife Majella).

On the other hand, polls taken with only one candidate on offer are fundamentally artificial and the true state of affairs may not emerge until or unless Higgins has a real flesh-and-blood opponent to confront him.

During Michael D Higgins' final pre-election press conference in 2011, he was asked to repeat his pledge about retiring after one term. He duly did so, but this time gave himself an important get-out clause: "One can never predict the love of the people."

Many would-be presidents today are wondering just how deep that love really is.


Seven People Who Could Replace Michael D

Gerard Craughwell

Age: 64.

Current job: Independent senator.

Background: Craughwell comes from Salthill in Co Galway and has served in both the British and Irish armies. A former president of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, he initially seemed to have little chance in a 2014 Seanad by-election but won after the Fine Gael candidate withdrew over a cronyism row.

What he says: “Michael D Higgins gave his assurance that he would be a one-term president… what’s happening here is old-style politics and cute hoorism.”


Mark Daly

Age: 35

Current job: Fianna Fáil senator.

Background: Before entering politics, Mark Daly finished third on the RTÉ reality television show Treasure Island in 2002. From a strongly republican Kerry family, he has compiled an Oireachtas report on how Brexit could lead to a united Ireland, introduced new protocols for the Irish flag and campaigned to have the national anthem ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ enshrined in legislation.

What he says: “I have been humbled by party members who approached me and asked me to consider putting my name forward.”


Fergus Finlay

Age: 68

Current job: Outgoing CEO of children’s charity Barnardos.

Background: As a Labour Party strategist, Finlay worked closely on Mary Robinson’s triumphant presidential campaign in 1990 and Adi Roche’s disastrous one in 1997. He unsuccessfully ran against Michael D Higgins for the Labour nomination last time around and will not directly challenge him again, but remains interested in the position.

What he says: “I would run a sleeves rolled up, community-based presidency… That’s not the role Michael D has chosen to follow, but he has done a fantastic job in other areas.”


Mairead McGuinness

Age: 59

Current job: Fine Gael MEP.

Background: Although McGuinness was beaten by Gay Mitchell for the Fine Gael nomination seven years ago, few people doubt that she still harbours serious presidential ambitions. A former RTÉ presenter and Irish Independent farming journalist, she has been a high-profile member of the European Parliament since 2004 and became its vice president last year.

What she says: “The fact that I put my name forward the last time clearly shows that I had an interest, but I would really be guided by [Fine Gael] and what the party wants.”


Liadh Ní Riada

Age: 51

Current job: Sinn Féin MEP.

Background: A daughter of the ‘Mise Éire’ composer Seán Ó Riada, she worked as a television producer and director before entering the European Parliament. She was a member of the board that set up TG4, appointed by the then arts minister — one Michael D Higgins.

What she says: Yet to make any public comment about the presidency but is widely seen as Sinn Féin’s likeliest candidate. The Cork woman was denounced by Ulster unionists last year for suggesting in a Hot Press interview that IRA atrocities should not be described as “terrorism”.


Padraig Ó Céidigh

Age: 61

Current job: Independent senator.

Background: Best known as the founder of regional airline Aer Arann, Ó Céidigh was appointed to the Seanad by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2016. The successful businessman and fluent Irish speaker from Connemara claims that he has the backing of many parliamentary colleagues for a presidential run.

What he says: “I am not interested in being a candidate just for the sake of it. If I go for something, I am the type of guy that would give it socks… 100 per cent.”


Kevin Sharkey

Age: 57

Current job: Artist and political activist.

Background: Raised in Donegal, Sharkey’s colourful CV includes being Ireland’s first black television presenter, appearing on Father Ted and working as a gigolo during the last recession. In recent times he has caused controversy by criticising the Irish government’s spending on foreign aid and questioning the level of immigration here.

What he says: “I couldn’t be more anti-establishment if I tried… I always felt there would come a time when I wanted to give something back for all I’ve got from Ireland.”

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