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Andrew lynch: 'I'm younger than Gaybo and Trapattoni ... but if elected President, I'll only serve one term'

MICHAEL Daniel Higgins is up for the match. After this interview he is heading for Croke Park, where he would like to see a Dublin victory in the All-Ireland hurling semi-final (that's the Tipperary vote gone).

It is exactly 24 hours since he heard that Gay Byrne has dropped out of the presidential race, leaving the Labour candidate as the clear front-runner.

"I am very happy with my campaign and I believe there is a very good chance of winning," he says cautiously over coffee in the Merrion Hotel.

"Some commentators suggest there is no public enthusiasm for any of the candidates, but that is not what I'm finding. I think the Irish people are very enthusiastic about a campaign based on ideas, of inclusive citizenship and creating a real republic.

"I'm getting great support from people who have no connection with the Labour Party, because they recognise the difference between a candidate with the label of Independent and a candidate who has actually shown independence of thought."

Michael D will never be accused of dumbing down.

The Galway poet, socialist and campaigner for radical causes is also an unashamed intellectual, whose conversation is littered with quotations from philosophers and academics.

Is he not surrounded by party professionals urging him to come with snappy soundbites instead?

"Of course I am," he laughs.

"And advice is always welcome, but I give no undertaking to follow it. I have a great respect for the Irish people and their ability to understand complex subjects."

While everybody knows what Michael D Higgins stands for, I suggest to him that it is still not clear what exactly he wants to do in Aras an Uachtarain.

"This is what I will be talking about during the campaign," he says.


"The president cannot be a focal point of opposition to the Government. The president cannot intervene in day-to-day issues.

"It's very wrong to give the impression that you can do things when you cannot.

"So instead, I want to emphasise themes that are very important. What is it like to be young in Ireland today? What version of Europe do we want? How can we harness our creativity, not just in the arts but in training and diplomacy and other areas? As president, I would organise a series of seminars to discuss these issues.

"There is one big difference between myself and some other candidates. I am not talking about going back to the way we were over the last 15 years. I think we must acknowledge that extreme individualism has done huge damage to our country and we must replace it with an inclusive society where everybody feels valued."

If all this sounds high-flown, it should be remembered that Higgins was raised by his aunt and uncle on a farm with no running water, sent there after his father became ill and could not support the family.

He has many painful memories from those days: his mother seeing half her children disappear, accompanying his father to interviews for jobs he had no hope of getting, eventually putting the old man in a poorhouse and leaving with tears in his eyes.

"My father fought for the republican side in the War of Independence," he points out.

"But afterwards, the new State abandoned people like him. So I feel very strongly that we have never created a real republic in Ireland and that's what my presidency would be all about."

But how would this be different from what we already have?

Although Higgins does not want to criticise Mary McAleese, he hints that he regarded her as too much of a cheerleader for the Celtic Tiger.

"Personally, I would have put more distance between myself and the given reality of the time," he says.

Unlike McAleese, Higgins is also upfront about saying that he regards Ireland as an unhappy society in many ways.

"You can see a whole generation excluded from opportunities," he laments.

"We are bombarded with suggestions of how we should define our worth by possessions.

"But we must move past cynicism and give people dignity, because everything starts with that."

Higgins' opponents will argue that he is too ideological and too outspoken for such a non-political role as the presidency.

He claims the legacy of Margaret Thatcher is partly to blame for last week's riots in London. But if the Iron Lady were to pass away while he was in the Aras, would he go to her funeral?

"Oh, I'd have no difficulty," he insists.

"As president you're not representing yourself, you're representing Ireland. And so I also would have no problem with welcoming ambassadors from any country."

What if a right-wing US president is elected next year and invades Iran? Would President Higgins be able to hold his tongue?

"I was with Mary Robinson in Somalia 20 years ago when she drew the world's attention to the famine that was going on there.

"In the same way, I would have the moral right to make the case against war. It's not my function to interfere in day-to-day foreign policy, but I am not required to suspend my moral concerns."

In other words, Higgins understands the presidency's limitations but is determined to push the boundaries as far as possible.

"There is always the option of addressing the Houses of the Oireachtas," he points out.

"During the recent economic crisis, for example, I think that would have been an appropriate step to take."

As Higgins proudly points out, his wife Sabina is a public figure in her own right and would be a huge asset to him in the Aras.

"She was a co-founder of the Focus Theatre and served as a bridesmaid at Luke Kelly's wedding.

"She was also very involved with the early feminist movement in Ireland. Marrying her was one of the great transformative moments of my life."

The election is still over 10 weeks away and anything can happen. Right now, however, this presidential race looks like it is Higgins' to lose.

He has even come up with a neat response to questions about his age, pointing out that at 70 he is still younger than Giovanni Trapattoni or Pablo Picasso when the artist did his best work.

Even so, he promises that if elected he would serve just one seven-year term, at the end of which he will be the same age as Gay Byrne is now.

"I cannot think of a better way to spend the next part of my life," he says.

"And I believe I can do a very good job for the Irish people.

"But whatever I have to say, I think those seven years should be enough even for me."