Monday 22 April 2019

Philip Ryan: Less is more with Higgins, but at what cost?

Perhaps in his second term, we will have a transparent President who embraces scrutiny rather than dismisses it, writes Philip Ryan

Michael D Higgins
Michael D Higgins
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Michael D Higgins could have talked himself out of another seven years in Aras an Uachtarain. The President was probably acutely aware of this, and, if he wasn't, those whom he paid to advise him certainly were.

Long before the starting pistol was officially sounded for the 2018 presidential election, Higgins and his staff decided the campaign should be as short as possible.

A sitting first-term president holds the power when it comes to deciding when an election for a second stint in the office should be held. Higgins was aware of this and held off announcing his decision to seek a second term for as long as possible.

This was a political decision aimed at frustrating potential opponents. It worked. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael decided it was not worth contesting the election - in part because Higgins was too popular, but also because of the expense and energy needed to contest a presidential campaign with little time to plan.

But the point is, Higgins knew what he was doing. Despite his statements about the presidency being above politics, he was happy to turn to his political playbook to ensure he secured a second term.

After all, this was the very same Labour Party politician who protested when Mary McAleese delayed her decision to seek a second term in 2004.

Less is more when it comes to Higgins. It was the strategy used during the 2011 presidential campaign. The Labour candidate resisted his natural urge to pontificate at length during interviews and remained relatively anonymous during televised debates.

Once the votes were in the bag, he was able to let loose for seven years and treated the nation to reams of impenetrable speeches littered with obscure references to little-known philosophers and left-wing economists.

Perhaps over the coming years, Higgins will try to be more inclusive when he speaks on behalf of the country. Inclusive in language rather than sentiment, that is.

Despite his penchant for public speaking, the President decided to sit out organised televised debates. Again, the 'less is more' political strategy was deployed. When he did show up, his performances were far from assured, especially when he was put on the back foot.

With that said, Higgins did not shirk away from interview requests from newspapers and radio stations. And throughout the campaign, he displayed the energy of a man much younger than his years.

However, his responses to simple questions were at times as impenetrable as some of his speeches. Months before Higgins announced he was contesting a second election, the Sunday Independent began investigating how millions of euro of taxpayers' money was being spent by the Office of the President.

There is a veil of secrecy surrounding the office, as it is excluded from Freedom of Information laws. We are told this is to ensure the independence of the office.

On April l, the Sunday Independent revealed that the President's term in office would cost around €30m. Using publicly available financial resources and information from sources, this newspaper tried to patch together how much was being spent by the office. The figure was based on Exchequer funding directly given to Aras an Uachtarain. It included his personal use of the Government jet.

Further investigation found more than €55m would be spent on the Aras during Higgins's term, when resources from other State agencies such as An Garda Siochana, the Defence Forces and the Department of Foreign Affairs were factored into the office's budget. It was also revealed that the office's spending was not audited for most of Higgins's tenure.

Allegations also emerged in the Irish Independent that the President stayed in a €3,000-per-night hotel in Switzerland - something he has yet to deny.

These stories ensured spending of taxpayers' money by the presidency during Higgins's first term was a central issue of the campaign. The President's response to legitimate questions about how his office spends our money was concerning, to say the least.

Before the campaign, he dismissed questions about how his office is funded as "sad". On the campaign trail, he made references to staying in refugee camps as a young politician when he was asked about the perceived extravagance of his office.

Finally, after pressure was exerted on him, he made a commitment to publish details of how millions of euro of taxpayers' money is spent. He also said he had updated his website with details of how he spends our money - in fact, he copied and pasted details from the Comptroller and Auditor General's (C&AG) website only after the information was published by the Sunday Independent.

His commitment to publish details of his spending fell short of anticipation when he said he would only release the details once the election was over. Again, he turned to 'independence of the office' to justify this stance.

And perhaps he judged this one correctly, as RTE's exit poll on Friday showed that the details (or the lack thereof) of spending by the Aras did not influence how most people voted.

It remains to be seen how much information Higgins will publish now the election is over. At a guess, I would say very little.

Perhaps he will stay true to his commitment and from now on, we will have a more transparent Aras an Uachtarain. Perhaps we will have a President who embraces scrutiny rather than dismisses it.

Higgins has been lauded for his first seven years in office but the campaign did unearth some uncomfortable truths about his tenure. He should be congratulated on his victory - but hopefully he can become an even better President by learning from the issues raised during the campaign.

Sunday Independent

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