Hot Press - - The Message - NIALL STOKES ED­I­TOR OF THE YEAR

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.


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.

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