MICHAEL D. HIGGINS SHOULD BE OUR NEXT PRESIDENT
In fifteen days time, Ireland goes to the polls to elect a new President. For the past seven years,
Michael D. Higgins has done a brilliant job in the Áras – and there isn’t anyone among the opposing candidates who has the qualities required to do the job. So let’s get out there and vote in numbers – all the better to make sure that the anti-choice brigade don’t sneak a candidate through by the back door.
Iremember the countdown to the Presidential election seven years ago with almost graphic clarity. In many ways, the field on that occasion was a very strong one, with a number of individuals of real substance, who had contributed in a hugely important way to Irish society, doing battle. However you viewed his past as a member of the IRA, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness was a formidable candidate, with a track record of having contributed in a powerfully influential way to delivering the peace process – and ultimately the Belfast Agreement and the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland – to his credit. David Norris had led the campaign for gay rights in Ireland from the front, taking enormous personal risks along the way. Having had his case rejected by the High Court and the Supreme Court here in Ireland, he finally won an extraordinary victory in the European Court of Human Rights – effectively changing the subsequent course of Irish history in the process. He also happened to be a brilliant Joycean scholar, an active Senator and a man of considerable wit.
In Gay Mitchell, Fine Gael put forward what might be described as a Marmite candidate. A lot of people wouldn’t ever warm to him, me among them. And he could not unfairly be dismissed as an intellectual lightweight. But you couldn’t gainsay the fact that he had devoted his life to public service and to the vicissitudes of democratic politics. He had served in the Dáil. He had been a Minister in Government. He had been an MEP. It was, at the very least, a decent-looking CV. If he could motivate the FG vote, in theory at least, he was a potential winner.
And then there was Michael D. Higgins. The former Chairman of the Labour Party and Minister for Arts and Culture had proven himself a brilliant and progressive scholar, intellectual, writer, poet and orator, who was fluent in a number of languages, including Irish. He had enjoyed a hugely distinguished career as a politician, a Hot Press columnist and a man of the people. To many in the world of the arts, even in a relatively strong field, he was clearly the outstanding candidate. That was certainly the way I saw it.
And yet, for a brief period, it appeared as if any and all of these genuinely worthwhile contenders might miss out to Sean Gallagher, a man with a track record as a Fianna Fáil apparatchick, whose only other qualification was that he was ‘young’. Which, of course, is really no qualification at all. The final opinion polls, sampled a week before the election, accurately or otherwise had Sean Gallagher in front. Then came the final Prime Time debate, in which accusations were made by Martin McGuinness about brown envelopes and money being raised for Fianna Fáil – followed by a Tweet from a spurious account that was not rumbled as such by RTÉ.
However the ensuing rumpus factored into the vote, on the day Michael D. Higgins took 39.6% of the first preferences. He also picked up the majority of transfers, clinching victory with almost 400,000 votes more than Sean Gallagher, who had outstayed all of the other candidates.
The thought that a great President like Mary Robinson, and one of the undeniable intellectual calibre of Mary McAleese, might be followed by a reality show panellist, who had displayed none of the attributes required of a President at any point in his career to date, or during the campaign, had seemed impossible to fathom – and potentially deeply depressing. Once the results were in, there was, I think, a widely-felt sense of relief that we had collectively avoided what would have been – at the very best – a bizarre and damning indictment of Irish values.
In the end, by far the strongest and most qualified candidate prevailed. But what if it had been different? That didn’t bear thinking about.
It’s All Click Bait
Over the intervening seven years, Michael D. Higgins has been an outstanding President. On all of the big occasions, he has represented the country with great skill and impressive dignity. He has been sure-footed in what he has said, and how he has said it. His speeches have been superbly crafted. And he has made a wonderful impression on the people amongst whom he has moved and mingled, with both charm and ease.
He came to the Music Show which we were involved in running back in 2012. He made a great speech to a room that was packed with artists, as well as leading lights from the music industry in the UK and Ireland. To a man and woman, our visitors were in awe of the President’s evident love of the arts, culture and music. There were some tough cookies and hardened cynics among them, but afterwards they spoke of him, and what he’d had
to say, in glowing terms. They raved about his accessibility, his sense of humour and his lack of ceremony. They compared him to David Cameron and threw their eyes to heaven. “That and the Queen is what we have to put up with,” one of them said to me. “You don’t know how lucky you are.” But we do, I said. A huge number of Irish people do. And it was true. Throughout the seven years he has served, Michael D has reached out to many of the most marginalised in Irish society. He has opened the doors of Áras an Uachtaráin in a way, and to an extent, that had never been done previously. And his humanity, empathy and generosity have made an extraordinary impression on ordinary Irish people, as well as those who have seen him in action around the world. He has been a hugely popular President, who is as at home at the National Ploughing Championships, an Ireland soccer international, or paying his respects to the family of Big Tom McBride as speaking about the great work of writers and musicians like Seamus Heaney, Tom Murphy, Liam Óg O Floinn and Rory Gallagher.
That, of course, is just one layer of a multi-faceted story. One of the great challenges of the past seven years came with the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Even people who had in the past been sharply, and usually unfairly, critical of him, like Eoghan Harris in the Sunday Independent, recognised what a superbly measured and nuanced performance he gave throughout the centenary commemorations. How many others in Irish public life would have judged the tenor of these public occasions so accurately or negotiated them so well? It is impossible to believe that anyone else would have handled it all – from the centenary of the 1913 Lockout onwards – with the subtlety, grace and insight which he brought to the journey. What might have turned into a dangerously tribal or divisive time was instead pitch perfect. Irish people were enhanced by the experience. So too were observers around the world. I think people loved him even more for that.
Now that the opposing candidates have donned their racing colours, they – or some of them at least – have been tying to chip away at Michael D’s record in the Áras. But there is nothing of even the vaguest substance in the criticisms. It is all click bait, or the equivalent. The truth is that his record is one of which any President, anywhere in the world, would be proud.
“THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT THAT SHE IS SEEN BY OPPONENTS OF REPEAL AS A FINE REPRESENTATIVE OF THEIR SINGULARLY REGRESSIVE VIEW OF THE WORLD.”
Here’s To Another Seven
It is fair to say that the line-up of contenders in 2018 isn’t a patch on what was on offer last time out. Liadh Ní Riada of Sinn Féin is a nice person. Her father was a brilliant and famous musician. She is intelligent and likeable and has an interesting story to tell. But she isn’t even remotely in the same league as Martin McGuinness. He had faced down the British military machine. He had been confronted with, and made, extraordinarily tough decisions. He may have done terrible things along the way or approved them. I am sure he did. But he had personally shifted from a militaristic view of the Northern conflict, and used his status within the Republican movement to persuade some deeply entrenched individuals that there was – as Gerry Adams famously told Hot Press – no military solution.
Against that background, there is something weak-kneed and evasive about Sinn Féin’s decision to push Liadh Ní Riada out there as if she is not a Sinn Féin candidate. She has spoken well in the past, in Hot Press, about her views on terrorism. What she had to say was controversial. As are the views she has expressed on vaccinations.
So why is she backtracking so obviously now on these and other positions? She is a Sinn Féin candidate. Why do her posters not say so? I ask this question entirely without rancour. She is the next best candidate to Michael D. Higgins, by a long way. But the attempt by the party to pretend that she is something other than she is seems, to me, to be disingenuous. Liadh has alway struck me as a naturally honest woman. I doubt that she is personally comfortable with the fudge.
And what other options are being offered to us? This is where things get more interesting. Because, there is little doubt that there is a strong element among the other candidates of harking back to an older, now outdated, but still slippery version of what Irish-ness is, and where this country is going – or where they’d like it to. Make no mistake, every election from now on will, to one degree or another, be an attempt on the part of the anti-choice mob, to re-run the referendum to Repeal the 8th Amendment.
Joan Freeman voted ‘No’ in that referendum. She says that she did not do so for ‘religious’ reasons. It doesn’t matter. She is an old-fashioned Irish Roman Catholic, who was a member of the self-styled ‘Council for Justice and Peace’ of the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference. She can believe that she was cured of her eczema in Knock, and that this was a miracle if she likes. She is perfectly entitled to any and all of the assumptions which being a conservative Catholic entails, odd as they so often are. But there is little doubt that she is seen by opponents of Repeal as a fine representative of their singularly regressive view of the world.
To what extent is the same true of one or more of the panellists from Dragon’s Den who are running? It’s hard to be sure, but there is certainly nothing in the previous work of Peter Casey or Gavin Duffy that might recommend them as potential Presidents.
To put it in perspective, while I would never support him, I could understand if Enda Kenny felt that he should be in with a shout of becoming President. If his legacy had not been terminally damaged by questions over the misuse of funds, Bertie
Ahern too might be entitled to feel it was a status to which he could reasonably aspire. There is an argument for Panti Bliss. Or for Colm O’Gorman. Or perhaps for someone like Miriam O’Callaghan, if she were of a mind to step across from her media work, into the realm of politics. She has seen most of the major changes in Irish society in stark close-up. She has grappled with the implications. She can handle the pressure. She can speak well in public. She is well known and popular. She has a law degree. You could make a case that she is well qualified.
But you have to ask of both Peter Casey and Gavin Duffy: just what form of bizarre egotism is involved in deciding that they even remotely have what it takes to be the President of Ireland? It is almost impossible to fathom.
Nor, in their campaigns to date, have either said or done anything which might suggest that they have the necessary qualities: not the gravitas, the subtlety, the intellectual reach or the sense of community. Has either of them even really thought about what it means to be a citizen?
And then there is Sean Gallagher, who is putting himself forward again. If a victory for him would have been a travesty back in 2011, well nothing has changed in the interim. Indeed, Sean inspires exactly the same question as the other ‘county council candidates’, even the already failed ones: what can it possibly be that makes individuals with little or no track record of public service believe that they are qualified to be the President of Ireland?
That question is all the more relevant, given the anniversaries that occur over the next number of years. The war of independence, which began in 1919, was followed by the treaty with the British, which saw the division of Ireland, the imposition of the border – and the establishment of the Free State. That was followed by the Civil War. What happened between 1919 and 1923 divided this island in the most extraordinary way, literally as well as metaphorically – and the repercussions are still being felt.
How these events will be remembered and marked is a hugely important issue, and there is no one among those running for the Presidency, apart from Michael D. Higgins, who has shown even an iota of the depth of understanding, experience, leadership or the ability to express themselves, that might help us all through what could yet become – particularly with the wrong hands at the Presidential tiller – a deeply divisive and troubling five years.
There is only one candidate who has what it takes. He has been doing the job brilliantly for seven years. But there is no room for complacency if we want to ensure that the anti-choice brigade’s attempt to sneak a candidate through while everyone sleeps cannot succeed. Michael D. Higgins should be everyone’s No.1 choice. Make sure that he is yours, and that you get to the polls.
Here’s to another seven.