Monday 21 January 2019

If Michael D wants a second term then he must fight for it

The President has lived up to expectations but for the sake of our young people he can't have a free pass for seven more years, writes Kevin Doyle

President Michael D Higgins. Photo: Steve Humphreys
President Michael D Higgins. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

In his inauguration speech Michael D Higgins set a series of notional targets for his presidency.

He talked about wanting to be a president who gave inspiration to people, who encouraged inclusiveness and who promoted Ireland abroad.

The former Labour Party minister said things like: "The circumstances that have impelled - and that continue to impel - many citizens to seek employment and a better life elsewhere, are not ordained by some mysterious hand of fate.

"They challenge our capacity to create a sustainable and prosperous economy and an inspiring model of the good society. We, in our time, must address the real circumstances that generate involuntary emigration, and resolve that in the years ahead we will strive with all our energy and intellect, with mind and heart to create an Ireland which our young people do not feel they have to leave and to which our emigrants, or their children, may wish, in time, to return to work and live in dignity and prosperity."

That was 2011 when the Troika were kings and any faith people still had in our political system was blind.

Seven years on and immigration now exceeds emigration, the State's books are balanced and seven out of 10 jobs lost during the crash have been restored.

Of course as President, Michael D Higgins (pictured inset) can't claim credit for the political decisions that have gotten us this far - but he did help set the tone for recovery.

He has spoken out repeatedly about the need for social awareness, for camaraderie and a sense of the greater good.

Individualism has been "one of the great intellectual pitfalls of our times", he told an audience in Scotland in 2016.

So even the most critical of analysts must admit that Mr Higgins has achieved many of the aims he set out in his first speech as head of State.

Mr Higgins's rise to high office came after a vicious 'survival of the fittest' campaign.

Sean Gallagher was the runaway favourite until RTE's 'Tweetgate' took him down. Martin McGuinness came third despite being confronted on the trail by families of IRA victims.

David Norris was embroiled in various scandals and Mary Davis became known as the 'Quango Queen'. Fine Gael's Gay Mitchell bombed, and Dana stunned the country with a statement at the end of a TV debate announcing that her family was subject to "malicious" and "false" accusations.

To describe the campaign as bonkers would be putting it mildly, but at the end Michael D Higgins got 701,101 first preference votes, almost 200,000 more than Mr Gallagher.

And at this juncture it's hard to imagine that many of those voters regret their decision.

Mr Higgins has spoken elegantly about the values of being Irish, represented us on the global scene and been entertaining all the way. But he told us this was for seven years - and that's why we must have a presidential election next October. Political sources believe Mr Higgins has become comfortable in the surroundings of the Phoenix Park but is cautious about subjecting himself to another gruelling campaign.

Yet if Mr Higgins puts his name forward for a second term, there's a strong chance he will be re-elected.

For a start, the main parties would be slow to splash the cash running against him, while household names such as Miriam O'Callaghan are unlikely to challenge him.

So it's likely the incumbent would end up competing with a few senators and perhaps a business figure or two.

This week Gerard Craughwell set out his stall as an alternative to Mr Higgins, saying: "Our presidents have traditionally been intellectual people who have had very grand and highly academic qualifications, very grand notions.

"We need to refocus on what drives Ireland's economy. I'm talking about the guy who sweeps the streets. Why are they any different from the consultant in the hospital. If we have dirty streets, the consultant will have an awful lot more work to do."

The implication is that Mr Higgins has lost touch with the working man since entering the Aras. And for all the positives from the President's time in office, there are questions about his spending that would pop up in a fresh campaign.

As per his remit, Mr Higgins has travelled the world - but sources say the President and his not insignificant entourage have done so in some comfort.

Most recently he spent 24 days in Australia and New Zealand. Other trips included places such as Vietnam, Columbia and Cuba.

Because the presidency is a protected species, immune from Freedom of Information requests, we have no way of finding out how much he spends on flights, five-star hotels or even his frequent garden parties in the Aras.

His budget for 2018 is €4.4m but the detail on how that is spent is far from transparent, considering he is not a monarch.

But the real reason I think we should have an election is age - and I don't mean Mr Higgins's age.

Yes, it's inevitable that he will face questions about his stamina during a campaign.

There's nothing wrong with that; but people will want to know if he has the stamina to parade around the country and represent Ireland abroad as he becomes an octogenarian.

But the bigger issue with age is our young people. To his credit, since taking office Mr Higgins has hosted seminars on youth issues and regularly engaged with young people.

At one such event, he said today's young people "will be leaders, policy makers and, most importantly, emancipatory thinkers and active citizens helping to guide and shape a society that is creative, inclusive and constantly open to new concepts and new possibilities".

A person who was 17 when Mr Higgins took office is now heading for 24, and unless there is a presidential election later this year they will be 31 before they get to vote on who represents the State.

That for me is the main reason Michael D Higgins must tell us his intentions and open the door to a proper election.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss