Wednesday 23 January 2019

John Downing: Like in 2011, the presidential 'phoney war' starts early

In the background the tall shadow of RTÉ’s Miriam O’Callaghan,
looms. Is her coyness a case of ‘just ask me’? Photo: Tom Burke
In the background the tall shadow of RTÉ’s Miriam O’Callaghan, looms. Is her coyness a case of ‘just ask me’? Photo: Tom Burke
John Downing

John Downing

It has the makings of a great election ... but, then again, it might not happen until 2025.

In October 2011, seven candidates slugged it out for the right to be called Uachtarán na hÉireann in a helter-skelter campaign long on showbiz and short on politics.

It ran from Mayday until polling day at Halloween, peppered by nine full broadcast debates.

But it started even earlier with a prolonged "phoney war" with up to seven other "will they, won't they" candidates included in the speculation.

There was the radio voice of the GAA, Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, veteran broadcaster Gay Byrne, even the fictional US President Bartlet of 'The West Wing' fame, aka Irish-American actor Martin Sheen, and DJ Marty Whelan, among others.

There was a dramatic family row in Fine Gael when some advisers tried to parachute in former European Parliament president Pat Cox, only to have that plan upended by Dublin MEP Gay Mitchell. It was matched by another big mill in Fianna Fáil as leader Micheál Martin issued an invitation to Gay Byrne to fly their flag.

Curiously, the candidate who attracted the minimum noise back in 2011 was a certain Michael D Higgins of Labour, who went on to win it. But now he is in the spotlight again as his intentions will have a big say on whether or not we have a presidential election this autumn.

Michael D has recanted his 2011 pledge that he wanted one seven-year term only. But it is clear that an uncontested renewal of office would be better than fighting in this most raucous election.

He has put off announcing a decision until July, mimicking the stance adopted by then president Mary McAleese in 2004, which delayed the realisation of his own ambitions for another seven years. That delay upsets others who might field. But it might offer a perfect alibi to both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, whose heavy-hitters see a presidential election as a very expensive distraction while a "real election" sometime later this year becomes increasingly likely.

The big two parties have delayed any decision for now. New Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said there should be an election and there would no shortage of likely candidates in her party ranks. But it is again unclear how real the appetite is here either.

The one person who insists he will run is Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell. He is definite also that he will get the necessary 20 TDs and/or senators to nominate him. There is some doubt here, even given the high number of non-party people now at Leinster House. But he could also go the other route and get four councils to endorse him.

One way or another, he could cause a rather unevenly matched election between himself and President Higgins, who can nominate himself.

In the background, the tall shadow of RTÉ broadcaster Miriam O'Callaghan still looms. Is her coyness on the issue a case of "just ask me"?

Her name is linked by some with Fianna Fáil, partly on the grounds that her brother, Jim O'Callaghan, is their TD for Dublin Bay South and their justice spokesman.

Of course, she was a major figure in the 2011 campaign asking the hard questions during an RTÉ debate. Now she could be a contender.

So for now the rumour mill grinds on and the speculation continues. If there is an election there will be an added dash of colour during the campaign with the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland in August. For now we can only await Michael D Higgins's decision.

Irish Independent

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