Friday 24 May 2019

It's important for debates to be held

President Michael D Higgins
President Michael D Higgins


Just a few weeks ago you could have procured generous odds that there would be no election and that Michael D Higgins would be returned to Aras an Uachtarain unopposed. It would be a coronation rather than a contest.

And, in fairness, there seemed every reason to believe this was so, which is probably why some of those mooted at the time as prospective challengers, like the broadcaster Miriam O'Callaghan or Fine Gael's Mairead McGuinness, decided not to allow their names go forward. (The Michael D factor was most likely in play too when Fianna Fail's Eamon O'Cuiv more recently decided to stay out of the race). After all, the political "mystics and statistics" were telling us there was no alternative. The President had done a good job over the past seven years and was popular; he had the backing of the two main parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, neither of which would field a candidate to oppose him; and even Sinn Fein did not seem to have fully made up its mind.

Now all is changed. Michael D Higgins is still the only candidate guaranteed a nomination, since he can nominate himself, but Sinn Fein has the requisite 20 Oireachtas members to nominate a candidate, which they now plan to do; and members of the local authorities of all parties seem keen to have their say in who should be allowed stand, irrespective of what those in their party headquarters think.

The unaligned Oireachtas deputies and senators might also yet agree to band together and back a candidate.

So now there is every chance two or even three stars of RTE's Dragons' Den will be nominated with Joan Freeman of Pieta House, and maybe even one or two others, given that some councillors have said if somebody is willing to put themselves forward they should be given their opportunity.

But do we really need a presidential election, given everything else that is going on in this country right now? The answer is a very firm yes. Because we are now set to have a great national debate over the next two months. And the issues discussed will not necessarily be germane to the functions of the presidency as defined by the Constitution. If they were it would be a very short campaign. The fact that the president has no official function in solving the problems of the homeless or the health service or the cervical screening scandal, for example, does not mean we shouldn't welcome these issues getting a good airing with the possibility of fresh thinking and maybe even fresh solutions emerging.

Some possible candidates have already begun talking about issues the President has no control over, like the salary for the job or the travel arrangements made by the Department of Foreign Affairs when the President goes abroad.

President Higgins does not take the astonishing full salary - €325,000 - but only accepts €249,000. Some candidates will no doubt say they will take even less. One Dragon, Peter Casey, has even suggested he would not need a salary at all.

We do not know if President Higgins relishes the campaign or if he would prefer to have been returned unopposed. There is still a better than even chance he will be returned to office on his record, and if he acquits himself well in the campaign he will have the added benefit of continuing to have an actual electoral mandate. Or we may have a different President promising to bring new energy and a fresh approach to the job. Either way, we will have had a good airing of some of the most important issues of the day - something that is always to be welcomed in a healthy democracy - thanks to all the contenders who will have given generously of their time, energy and money, for which we should thank them.

Sunday Independent

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