Thursday 21 November 2019

I'm no fan of Michael D - but the other candidates have looked like political pygmies compared to him

ARAS OFFICE: President Michael D Higgins. Photo: Mark Condren
ARAS OFFICE: President Michael D Higgins. Photo: Mark Condren
John Downing

John Downing

'FIGHTERS," he said with disgust, "sure you'd beat them with your cap."

The minority of us who not only loved but also actually learned Gaeilge at school might recall that line from the real and loveable memoir about life for a young Irish navvy eking out a living on the buildings in England in the 1950s and 1960s. The book was called 'Dialann Deoraí' and its piquant messages were often wasted on Irish teenagers in the 1970s when it was on the school curriculum.

It was written by Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, a Kilkenny native with strong Connemara connections, who wrote with fierce honesty. That opening quote relates to an incident at a new Irish centre in England where the priest-cum-community-leader insisted there were to be absolutely no street fights outside as he was trying to manage relations with the neighbours.

So, when any big conflict arose, the priest fixed it so that the main protagonists donned boxing gloves and faced up, man-to-man, inside the new community hall. Mac Amhlaigh was there one night to see such a boxing contest which was a poor affair, over in minutes, earning the priest's utter contempt.

Watching the presidential election over the past month, the quote cited above came to mind on more than one occasion.

All elections are tough affairs for candidates and their supporters who take to the stump, and the presidential one often has an additional streak of meanness attaching to it, making it extra hard on all contestants and their families.

Elections are not ideally designed to entertain us. But it is a bonus, and good for our politics, when they are engaging as contests. This one never, ever, fired as a contest.

Michael D Higgins was just streets ahead from the outset and he maintains that pre-eminence as we now enter the final four days. The latest Red C opinion poll for yesterday's 'Sunday Business Post' puts President Higgins on 68pc.

The combined support of the other five candidates is less than half that tally.

The nearest thing we got to real controversy were some rather mean-spirited comments by Peter Casey about Travellers. He was excoriated by people as diverse as the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Limerick Fianna Fáil political wizard Willie O'Dea.

He pondered quitting the campaign - and then decided to batter his way to the end. Life continues which or whether and that latest opinion poll puts Mr Casey on 2pc - up from 1pc before that ugly spat.

The others have just failed to convince the voters. Seán Gallagher, the almost winner in 2011, is placed second on 12pc and his re-run of his messages for the last contest have not resonated at all.

Sinn Féin will be disappointed with Liadh Ní Riada's score of 9pc and will be going all out in these final days to improve things. She began with name recognition due to her late father, Seán Ó Riada, and a fluent command of Irish, contesting perhaps the only post to which the first language is still central, and she impressed on occasion in the debates.

The party had been hoping for something around 20pc, moving beyond its core support and attracting women and middle-class voters. It is hard to see that happening come Friday.

Joan Freeman, whose messages about mental health have power, is still only on 6pc. Gavin Duffy is on 3pc, keeping Peter Casey company at the bottom of the table. All of the quintet have found out at first hand just what a brutal business politics can be. I am not a Michael D fan. He really annoys me at times and he has failed the test on promoting more transparency around the cost of the Office of President.

The Labour Party, in which Mr Higgins was a leading figure in the 1990s, championed Freedom of Information (FoI). Labour, to its credit, restored that legislation in 2014 after Fianna Fáil had curtailed it a decade earlier.

But neither Labour nor Mr Higgins has offered any credible explanation of why the presidency was exempted from FoI. Mr Higgins has made some vague mutterings about "not undermining the independence of the office". But FoI applies to the Taoiseach and all his ministers without suggestions of it undermining their functions or independence.

Yet, apart from all that, the simple fact is that Mr Higgins has done a very good job over the past seven years. The Irish people appreciate that and can carry whatever shortcomings there are about him as being not especially important.

And the others have often looked like political pygmies in comparison with him.

It is definitely arguable that it would be an entirely different story had either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil stood a candidate. Their absence, and effective endorsement of Mr Higgins, have made things very much easier for him.

We have heard some predictable railing over the past few days about the cost of this presidential election, put at something around €15m, amid suggestions that it is money wasted. It is no such thing.

A lacklustre election campaign is, as we have already said, regrettable. But it is not an argument for not holding an election.

Returning Mr Higgins to Áras an Uachtaráin without a vote, giving him a total of 14 years in office, would have been a denial of democracy.

Those who pushed for an election, notably Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell, and Sinn Féin, which announced it would contest many months ago, are to be complimented.

But as this campaign draws to a close, it would be a boon if it could focus more on the narrow range of functions given to the president under the 1937 Constitution.

It is also past time to look at the finances of this election. As things stand, the campaign spending limit is €750,000 per candidate.

If a candidate is elected, or gets more than 25pc of the quota in the election, they can be reimbursed up to €200,000 from the State.

Come the count next Saturday, many of us will while away the hours calculating how much per vote those propping up the bottom of the table actually spent. And how few will qualify for any rebate.

On the latest survey showings, those sums will be rather easily done. The answers will undoubtedly cause some mirth among those of us who like our politics. It may be time to ask about why the presidential campaign should cost so much, and what things can be done to reduce spending, making the election more accessible to ordinary citizens. A postering ban or limit might be worthy of consideration here.

The one thing we have learned from this dreary campaign is that those who are not millionaires, or do not have the backing of a large political organisation, are not likely to be able to field. That is regrettable in any democracy and worthy of being debated and considered in depth.

Irish Independent

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