Thursday 21 February 2019

Debt campaigner is latest tip for Aras race as field fills up

An eclectic bunch of potential challengers are weighing up the odds of ousting Michael D Higgins, writes Maeve Sheehan

INCUMBENT: President Michael D Higgins shares a laugh with Deena Cotter from Dun Laoghaire as he hosts an afternoon tea for community groups in Aras An Uachtarain — now a wide range of potential candidates are lining up to challenge him for the presidency. Photo: Maxwell
INCUMBENT: President Michael D Higgins shares a laugh with Deena Cotter from Dun Laoghaire as he hosts an afternoon tea for community groups in Aras An Uachtarain — now a wide range of potential candidates are lining up to challenge him for the presidency. Photo: Maxwell
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The prospect of a presidential election is providing a zing of energy to cut through the torpid heat and drought. Since Michael D Higgins's declaration last Tuesday week that he intends to seek another seven-year term, names of possible rivals have bubbled to the surface.

The latest name to emerge is David Hall's, a campaigner for distressed mortgage holders and owner of a private ambulance firm. The usually vociferous Mr Hall declined to confirm or deny his interest this weekend.

But according to Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice - who is trying to drum up Oireachtas support for an independent candidate to join the race - Hall's name was put forward by two independent councillors "in the south of the country".

Mr Hall may have declined to confirm or deny his interest, but he declared his interest in a Hot Press interview last year, while praising Michael D Higgins. Fitzmaurice said: "I rang him, and he confirmed he was considering it."

Hall joins a field that is fast filling up with an eclectic mix of citizens, including, so far, a mental health activist, two entrepreneurs, an artist, a teacher, a former GAA president and a barrister-cum-columnist.

Only a handful will proceed to the starting block in the autumn, let alone stay the course of a campaign. "What's happening now is that possible candidates are feeling their way," said one source.

To get a nomination for the presidential election, candidates must secure the signatures of 20 TDs or senators, or the backing of four county councils. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have asked their Oireachtas members to support Michael D Higgins and Sinn Fein confirmed it will be fielding its own candidate. That leaves a tiny pool of Oireachtas members free to sign the nomination papers of other contenders.

Among those seeking a nomination are Independent Senator Joan Freeman, who wrote to councils last week asking for their support. Freeman founded Pieta House, the mental health crisis centre she left last year to set up a similar centre in New York.

Freeman has links with the campaign against repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Her niece is Maria Steen, one of the most high-profile anti-abortion campaigners, and her sister is Theresa Lowe, the barrister and former RTE presenter, who also spoke against repeal.

Another Independent Senator, Gerard Craughwell, a teacher and former union president, is also working hard for a nomination, and has been vocal in his criticisms of Michael D Higgins, most recently accusing him of a "sense of entitlement" in leaving it to the "12th hour" before announcing that he wanted to serve second term.

With a twitter handle, VoteSharkey2018, the artist Kevin Sharkey effectively launched his campaign last month.

The rest have yet to declare their intentions.

Padraig O Ceidigh, the founder of Aer Arann, is said to be seriously considering a tilt at the presidency, having been approached to run. The entrepreneur from Connemara is also an academic and mentor, who has served on the boards of RTE and Failte Ireland. The slogan on his webpage is "Vision, Integrity, Execution", which is presumably what he feels he could bring to the Aras.

Sean Gallagher, the entrepreneur who came second to Higgins in 2011, has cropped up again, after asking local authorities to facilitate candidates. He has yet to declare his intentions, but the rumour is that he's fronting for his fellow former Dragons' Den star, Gavin Duffy.

The former GAA president, Liam O'Neill, and the barrister and political commentator Noel Whelan are also said to be considering their positions. Christy Burke, the Independent councillor and former Sinn Fein TD, strayed into the fray briefly and withdrew. "Sure, where would I get the money?" he asked.

Other names may emerge, but all eyes are on who Sinn Fein will select as its challenger to Michael D Higgins. An internal party selection process has begun, with Liadh Ni Riada, the MEP and daughter of composer Sean O Riada, and Michelle Gildernew, the MP, said to be on the shortlist.

The odds of beating Michael D Higgins are slim at this stage. The President has the support of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour, and a popularity that has, if anything, been entrenched during his time at the Aras. His approval ratings have reached 70pc and beyond.

One seasoned political campaigner who worked on the 2011 election said Michael D Higgins ticks a lot of boxes - human rights, middle Ireland, young people. A successful challenger would have to provide "something young, fresh, and that would be in stark contrast to what he offers".

Surveying the line-up of potential challengers, he singled out Sinn Fein's candidate as having the potential to mount the most serious campaign. He estimated that candidates need a budget of €500,000 and a strong election team behind them.

But Michael D Higgins also faces challenges. He is the first incumbent to campaign for re-election as President while actually doing the job of president. (Eamon de Valera contested a second term in 1966 but he did not campaign.)

Senator Craughwell fired a warning shot last week, tweeting that the ethics watchdog, Sipo, might have to "adjudicate" on the separation of presidential duties and electioneering.

"This is the first time that we have a president going about his normal duties while at the same time campaigning for the presidency. It is going to be a bit of a tightrope," said one source.

Michael Fitzmaurice - who once threatened to run himself to spark a presidential contest - has now turned "facilitator". The Independent TD says he has written to 35 TDs and senators to ask if they would in principle sign the nomination papers of an independent candidate. So far, 19 have told him they would in principle be willing to do so - only one short of the required 20.

Who that independent candidate might be remains to be seen. Oireachtas sources reckoned O Ceidigh is gathering momentum with independents.

But Mattie McGrath, the Independent TD for Tipperary, has already declared that he's backing Freeman as a "good Catholic" candidate. According to Fitzmaurice, all should become clear in two weeks' time.

"For what we're trying to do to facilitate someone, the next couple of weeks will be like the Bucks Fizz song - it'll be coming to the time to be making your mind up," he said.

"You won't be able to keep your name out if you're interested. You're either going then or you're not."

Sunday Independent

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