Wednesday 23 January 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: Presidential hopefuls are being attacked for daring to stand at all

Just because Michael D Higgins enjoys such huge support in the polls is no reason to belittle his rivals, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Presidential hopeful Gavin Duffy Photo: Lorraine Teevan
Presidential hopeful Gavin Duffy Photo: Lorraine Teevan

Eilis O'Hanlon

Imagine that Gavin Duffy's presidential campaign was a pitch on Dragons' Den. "So you're going to remortgage your house to raise a €750,000 loan to fund an enterprise with an almost zero chance of success? Er, I'm out."

Of course, the entrepreneur mustn't think it's hopeless, or he wouldn't be willing to sacrifice so much in pursuit of it. He must believe he has a fighting chance of celebrating Christmas in the Aras. "I'm proceeding with this with conviction," is how Duffy himself puts it, and, as his former producer on the RTE One television show says, everyone in politics needs a healthy ego to survive. There's nothing wrong with self-belief.

Realistically, though, it's an outside shot. Polls show that Michael D Higgins enjoys the support of some two-thirds of the electorate. It's not a fair or equal fight; the Galway man has a huge platform, practically universal and slavish media support, and the advantage of incumbency. De Valera came within a whisker of losing in 1966, but no sitting president has been booted out of office.

Kevin Sharkey Pic:Mark Condren
Kevin Sharkey Pic:Mark Condren

Not even the entry into the race of Sean Gallagher, the runner-up in 2011, is likely to change that. Back then was his best shot. He was the frontrunner for most of the race, and was cheated of victory when Pat Kenny, then of RTE, read out a tweet falsely claiming that the independent candidate had collected a cheque for Fianna Fail from a man whom he later described as a "convicted criminal and fuel smuggler". (He eventually settled his legal action against RTE).

Thrown off-balance by the accusation, and with insufficient time to correct the damage before the election was held just three days later, his campaign went into freefall.

Gallagher still received 28pc of the vote, and would probably have made an excellent president, but his moment has passed. Voters rarely look back.

Peter Casey. Photo: RollingNews.ie
Peter Casey. Photo: RollingNews.ie

He enters a field that has become crowded to the point of untidiness. Voters in October may well need a booklet rather than a ballot paper on which to list all the candidates, seemingly confirming predictions before the summer that this could be "the oddest presidential election ever".

Sinn Fein hasn't even announced its own candidate yet, and whoever it picks will mop up a large proportion of potential protest votes; but none of this seems to be deterring would-be presidents from putting their names forward, including someone called Jimmy Smyth, who is apparently lead guitarist of The Bogey Boys - a new one on me, I must admit. He's running on something called "people power", which is surely a bit of an oxymoron.

Elections are always about people power. The candidate with the most people behind them gets the power. That's how it works.

Then there's Sarah Louise Mulligan, the "Marilyn Monroe impersonator" behind IrishWhoLovePresidentTrump.com. She looks fetching in stars and stripes on her website but her best chance of getting to the Phoenix Park is surely to get a bus from O'Connell Street and go see the deer. I wanted to see a presidential contest as much as the next ordinary observer with a dull October to fill, but it is becoming a bit of a circus at this stage.

President Michael D Higgins
President Michael D Higgins

Though is that necessarily a bad thing? Democracy is a bit messy by definition. What many of those sneering at the unusual range of hopefuls in this race seem to be criticising is that candidates can put themselves up for high office without the proper "credentials" or the backing of a major establishment party. Surely that's to be welcomed, rather than disparaged?

It would be a strange republic that tried to put the people in their place. Instead of "oddest election ever", maybe we should say "most democratic election ever"?

Or at least it could be if there was a level playing field. Of course, there isn't. One would need a heart of stone not to feel hugely sorry for some of the candidates, because they're being hammered relentlessly right now by the media, purely for having the audacity to stand against the sainted occupant of the Aras.

President Higgins has barely had to answer a single question about his record. Every other Tom, Dick and Harriet who's put his or her head above the parapet is being shot at as if they'd been cosily in power for years and needed to justify their very existence.

Gavin Duffy has been caught up in a row about using Kildare County Council's Local Enterprise Office logo on his campaign literature when he didn't have permission to do this.

This, apparently, is supposed to prove that his commitment to honesty and integrity is somehow suspect. Because, yeah, that really is the biggest scandal in Irish public life.

The candidates have all been asked as well whether they'd take the whole salary on offer in the unlikely event that they're elected, while the man who earns €249,014 a year by being president hasn't even been asked about his pay packet once.

It seems what to do about imaginary future money is now more important than what's being done with real money right now.

Dublin-based artist Kevin Sharkey has also come under the cosh, not least for telling councillors in Kildare, where he was seeking nominations alongside other hopefuls, that "all villages should have a girl with red hair playing a harp in the corner, someone cooking cabbage or someone burying someone outside like they used to".

This wasn't a direct quote from the Donegal native, merely a paraphrase by the author of the piece in The Irish Times, hence the lack of quotation marks around the words in the original article, but the media leapt on it more greedily than a wild boar on a truffle.

Sharkey was talking about turning Famine villages into tourist attractions, but it was presented as if he meant every single village in the country, with consequent bewilderment as to where we were going to find so many harp-playing redheads at short notice.

How we all laughed. That he might have other qualities to bring to the presidency went entirely ignored in the ensuing hilarity.

Journalist Gemma O'Doherty, who's also launched a bid to become president, is similarly being attacked for her reported views on vaccines and transgender issues, though she denies that she's anti-vaccination and says her views have been "taken out of context".

O'Doherty has been the most vocal of all the candidates in criticising the media. The media, for its part, seems determined to hammer the campaigns of all Michael D's rivals.

In particular, Kevin Sharkey's insistence that "Ireland First" should be the priority of every politician has been misunderstood from day one. It was even compared to the name of the far-right UK political party Britain First, as if British racists have a monopoly on the word "First".

What exactly is wrong with saying that Irish politicians should prioritise the interests of Ireland and of Irish people over everything else? Sensible self-interest is good politics.

His views on immigration are more controversial. Despite being the son of a Nigerian immigrant, Sharkey has said that Ireland should "remain predominantly white". It was, obviously, a choice of words which has left him open to strong criticism.

He was trying to warn against the dangers of unthinkingly embracing forms of multiculturalism which have proved destabilising in other countries, and failed to express that clearly.

Those words have now become a millstone around his neck, and even the prospect of having Ireland's first black president has not made the politically correct guardians of what can and can't be said forgive him.

It seems that black people in public life are allowed to think and say anything they like, as long as it's been previously approved by white middle-class offence junkies. Rapper Kanye West discovered the same when he dared to admit admiration for Donald Trump.

Peter Casey, the third Dragons' Den investor to declare an interest in the job, was even referred to in The Irish Times when he announced his candidacy as a "Jaguar-driving US-based businessman". It really is astonishing to witness the lengths some sections of the media are prepared to go to undermine Michael D's challengers. Is this meant to trigger class envy among voters?

If so, then Michael D ought to be a prime target, as he's banked €1.75m in wages since becoming president, and will bank the same amount again for his second term, not to mention all the pension payments after that, and all on top of the fortune which he's earned from the public purse in decades as a TD and very occasional minister.

One particularly weird line of attack is to demand what budding candidates will do as president. What has President Higgins done except give a few dull-as-ditchwater speeches quoting Italian Marxist philosopher Gramsci and issue gushing paeans on the death of communist dictator Fidel Castro?

If his supporters thought he'd be a breath of fresh air back in 2011, they can't seriously argue so now that he's been doing the job, dutifully but largely unexceptionally, for seven years.

The two Marys who came before him were much more radical in their own way. Presidents Robinson and McAleese raised our expectations about what a president should be, even if they did become rather annoyingly full of themselves afterwards, and Michael D has been something of a step backwards.

He flew under the radar in 2011, as Sean Gallagher and the late Martin McGuinness slugged it out, and now he's getting a free pass from scrutiny.

It's all the more important that the Irish media does so, since the incumbent president is unlikely to campaign at all, save for a few set-piece rallies and carefully vetted meet-and-greets.

He definitely won't take part in televised debates with other candidates, which would be regarded as demeaning to his exalted office, though no one should be above examination in a republic.

Just because Michael D Higgins won't answer questions is no reason not to keep asking them. It won't happen, though.

The Irish media is too busy punching down at the other candidates rather than punching up at the man at the top.

Sunday Independent

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