Sunday 26 May 2019

Why stalwart Higgins deserves seven more years as President

There's nothing really to be gained, and potentially a lot to lose, in running against President Higgins, writes Eoin O'Malley

Pushed the boundaries: President Michael D Higgins at Aras an Uachtarain
Pushed the boundaries: President Michael D Higgins at Aras an Uachtarain

Perhaps Sayre's Law is right; it's because the stakes are so low that people get so exercised by the Irish Presidency. The political campaign in the last presidential election in 2011 was about as bitter as anything we'd seen in Ireland since Saipan. The TV debate proved decisive, and it wound up in the courts.

Which should be surprising given that the Irish Presidency is not a significant political office - at least not formally. For the 2018 Presidential Election much of the vitriol directed at Michael D Higgins comes from some of the many people who've expressed an interest in running for the Presidency. But it looks unlikely that we'll have an election. And that may be no bad thing.

President Higgins hasn't yet confirmed that he will seek another term - despite earlier assurances that he'd be a one-term president. But his oblique references to his intentions are increasingly direct. Direct enough that Fianna Fail indicated last week that it would not run a candidate against Michael D.

Fine Gael, too, is unlikely to want to challenge him. There's nothing really to be gained, and potentially a lot to lose in running against him, money certainly, and probably reputation. If Higgins isn't standing, Varadkar probably would prefer not to run a Fine Gael candidate. There'd be pressure from within the ranks, but he might instead support someone like Katherine Zappone as an independent candidate. Labour obviously would regard Michael D as its candidate, though he'd never put Labour on a poster if he faces an election.

Indeed, it is possible that we will never see another 'party' candidate from any of those parties. Most who aspire to the office want to just pick up a nomination from the parties, but don't want to be closely associated with the parties. That makes sense now.

While the holders of the office have never displayed partisan loyalties once installed, partisan loyalties were important to get you elected. There was a time when Fianna Fail always got over 40pc of the vote and could touch 50pc at times, its nomination virtually guaranteed their candidate the Aras. No longer. In 2011, Fine Gael voters felt no loyalty to Gay Mitchell.

While any new candidates will need to get support from the parties for nomination, none of them want to be party candidates. They know that most people don't vote along party lines in presidential elections anymore. Those TDs, senators, and MEPs who are looking hopefully for their party's nomination haven't figured it out yet.

Sinn Fein is different. It's still to make up its mind whether to run a candidate. There's not a lot in it for Sinn Fein to run against Higgins, though it may feel that as a party that aspires to lead the nation, it shouldn't be seen to shirk the opportunity. There was some talk of supporting the actor Colm Meaney, but he'd hardly want the job.

And anyone would want to be pretty clean before subjecting themselves to a presidential election campaign. It's much more personal than a general election is for the party leaders. Because policy isn't discussed, we end up talking about each candidate's 'character'. Not many of us could sustain so much attention on our personal life without something coming out we'd prefer would remain private.

Anyone knows winning is next to impossible. Michael D is very popular. And we're sure he's going to run, because the Presidency affords him the space to pursue whatever pet project he wants.

Presidents don't have policies, they have themes and Higgins's theme is 'community'. By and large his activities have been non-partisan. It's been stuff we might expect a president to do: promoting culture and the arts, supporting minorities, and generally being a decent human being. He has a blind spot for left-wing dictators, and often criticises caricatures of what he opposes.

But he dealt with the 1916 commemorations admirably, bringing a reflectiveness to it that eschewed the baser nationalist reflexes that others were inclined to.

Higgins has pushed the boundaries of the office well beyond where either Mary Robinson or Mary McAleese went. In advance of the 2016 election, he openly questioned the wisdom of tax cuts, involving himself in political debate more than he should. He dressed it up in arcane language, but no one could really have been in any doubt what he was saying. Fine Gael was privately furious at this, but it could do nothing.

The themes that presidential candidates run on are important to make us feel good about ourselves.

But they also reflect a type of culture war. Those constituencies that voted most strongly for Mary Robinson in 1990 voted most heavily to Repeal the Eighth, and vice versa for McAleese in 1997. In the aftermath of McAleese's victory, car stickers were seen with 'Pro-Life 1, Abortionists 0'. But the vote isn't really about the culture war, it's about picking a candidate we think can represent us well.

The two most vocal hopefuls for 2018 are independent senator Gerard Craughwell, and a Donegal artist, Kevin Sharkey. Neither has a chance - an unpublished IrelandThinks poll puts them at 1pc and 2pc respectively - and for good reason. Both come out with bizarre statements on just about any subject you can choose. Craughwell recently expressed regret at David Drumm's downfall. Sharkey is a nativist, whose comments seem inspired by Brexit Britain or Trump's America.

Craughwell's main argument is that there should be an election. While it's right that no one gets to the office without an election, Higgins's broad support across the political spectrum is not evidence of a political elite stitching up jobs that should be open to all. It reflects how most recognise that he's done a pretty good job representing us. If he wants seven more years, he can get them, election or no election.

  • Dr Eoin O'Malley is director of the MSc in Public Policy in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

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