Michael D: Can he re­ally han­dle a sec­ond term?

He said from the start he wanted no more than seven years as Pres­i­dent of Ire­land but now it seems that’s changed. AN­DREW LYNCH asks if Michael D Hig­gins can swing a sec­ond term

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - ON THE ROAD -

In Au­gust 2011, Michael D Hig­gins gave an in­ter­view to this writer about his bid to be­come Pres­i­dent of Ire­land. Asked if his age might be a con­cern, the 70-year-old Labour can­di­date protested that he was younger than both Gio­vanni Tra­p­at­toni (then man­ager of the Ir­ish foot­ball team) and Pablo Picasso “when he did his best work”. Even so, Hig­gins was keen to re­peat his cam­paign pledge that if elected, he would only serve one seven-year term in Áras an Uachtaráin.

“What­ever I have to say, I think those seven years should be enough,” he con­cluded in a hu­mor­ous ref­er­ence to his rep­u­ta­tion for long-wind­ed­ness, “Even for me.”

To­day it ap­pears that Pres­i­dent Hig­gins is not quite ready to leave the stage af­ter all. Al­though there has been no for­mal an­nounce­ment yet, vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one in Gov­ern­ment Build­ings now ex­pects him to break his prom­ise and seek a sec­ond term. Ac­cord­ing to some re­ports, he has al­ready told sev­eral min­is­ters that he will run again and plans to renom­i­nate him­self as the Con­sti­tu­tion al­lows.

Few po­lit­i­cal pun­dits at this stage would bet against Hig­gins get­ting his wish. A num­ber of key ques­tions, how­ever, still re­main.

Will he be forced to go through the rigours of an­other na­tional elec­tion? If so, can he per­suade the vot­ers that his orig­i­nal one-term com­mit­ment was not just a cyn­i­cal ploy? How many peo­ple share the con­cerns of his old friend and former ri­val Se­na­tor David Nor­ris, who ar­gues that a pres­i­dent aged 84 (which Hig­gins will be in 2025) is sim­ply too old?

Most im­por­tantly, could a younger chal­lenger emerge and cause an up­set by mak­ing the in­cum­bent look stale or hide­bound by com­par­i­son? Should they take in­spi­ra­tion from a slo­gan that was briefly con­sid­ered by Mary Robin­son’s cam­paign team in 1990 — ‘There’s Enough Mon­u­ments in the Park Al­ready’?

As things stand, it ap­pears that the two big­gest par­ties in Le­in­ster House are happy to of­fer Pres­i­dent Hig­gins a free pass. Last week, Micheál Martin threw his weight be­hind him, openly de­fy­ing a mo­tion passed at the 2017 Ard Fheis that called for Fianna Fáil to field a can­di­date of its own. Martin has also con­firmed that his TDs, sen­a­tors and coun­cil­lors are ex­pressly for­bid­den from nom­i­nat­ing any­body else for the po­si­tion.

Leo Varad­kar ap­par­ently feels the same way. The Fine Gael leader has reg­u­larly heaped praise on Michael D Hig­gins, in­di­cat­ing his be­lief that a pres­i­den­tial race is a dis­trac­tion the coun­try can do with­out.

“I think he has done a fab­u­lous job as pres­i­dent,” Varad­kar said shortly af­ter be­com­ing Taoiseach a year ago. “I have re­ally liked work­ing along­side him. I al­ready lean on his ad­vice and his ex­pe­ri­ence. It is an ad­van­tage as a young Taoiseach to have an ex­pe­ri­enced pres­i­dent to bounce things off and con­sult with.”

Last Tues­day, how­ever, the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDon­ald de­liv­ered what may well turn out to be a game-changer. While stress­ing her own per­sonal re­gard for Pres­i­dent Hig­gins, she de­clared: “I don’t think it’s ap­pro­pri­ate that the in­cum­bent rolls into an­other term of of­fice seam­lessly.” In other words, Sinn Féin now looks more likely than not to put some­one for­ward and will make a fi­nal de­ci­sion at its Ard Comhairle meet­ing next Sat­ur­day. McDon­ald has al­ready said that Gerry Adams “would freak” at the idea of run­ning him­self, but claims that sev­eral other names are “in the mix”.

If she proves to be as good as her word, then the race will def­i­nitely be on — and Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil might soon re­gret their de­ci­sion to re­main sit­ting on the side­lines.

Last week­end, the former Taoiseach Ber­tie Ah­ern of­fi­cially ruled him­self out and sug­gested that Pres­i­dent Hig­gins was vir­tu­ally un­beat­able. Not ev­ery­one, how­ever, agrees.

“The no­tion that he is some kind of widely adored, avun­cu­lar, cud­dly poet who ev­ery­one

I do think there is a great ar­ro­gance in a po­lit­i­cal party say­ing, ‘We shouldn’t have a con­test,’ be­cause that is not for me or the Labour Party to de­cide…

loves and ad­mires is a to­tal fan­tasy of the me­dia’s cre­ation,” says Keith Red­mond, an In­de­pen­dent coun­cil­lor in Fin­gal who has pre­vi­ously rep­re­sented Fine Gael and Renua. “For a size­able pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion, he doesn’t rep­re­sent their eco­nomic, his­tor­i­cal or cul­tural iden­tity.”

Red­mond is par­tic­u­larly crit­i­cal of Hig­gins’ fawn­ing trib­ute to the late Cuban dic­ta­tor Fidel Cas­tro in 2016, claim­ing: “This was akin to Éa­mon de Valera’s of­fer of con­do­lence on the death of Hitler. It makes him to­tally un­fit to be the voice of the Ir­ish peo­ple.

“I sim­ply don’t be­lieve [Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil] wouldn’t pre­fer one of their own to be pres­i­dent in­stead of the in­cum­bent. So in­stead, I be­lieve they don’t think the of­fice is worth spend­ing any time, ef­fort or money cam­paign­ing for. It is vi­tal for the sake of the of­fice that there is a cam­paign, an elec­tion and a demo­cratic man­date for who­ever will be our pres­i­dent for the next seven years.”

What about the pos­si­bil­ity of an in­de­pen­dent can­di­date? By en­dors­ing Hig­gins at such an early stage, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have made it much harder for any­one to win the sup­port of 20 Oireach­tas mem­bers or four lo­cal au­thor­i­ties nec­es­sary for a place on the bal­lot paper.

Even so, at least one man is still de­ter­mined to try. Se­na­tor Ger­ard Craugh­well, a former Ir­ish army sergeant and trade union leader, claims that he is just “three names short” of se­cur­ing a nom­i­na­tion and has vowed to reach his tar­get “even if hell freezes over”.

He also says it would be “a big mis­take” for Hig­gins to seek an­other term, ad­ding: “The Pres­i­dent has done a great job over the last seven years but even some of his most loyal sup­port­ers have told me he has noth­ing more to bring to the role.”

The no­tion of Pres­i­dent Craugh­well still seems a lit­tle far-fetched, but his dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion to force a con­test has been highly ef­fec­tive in keep­ing the is­sue alive.

Dr Maura Ad­shead, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in

pol­i­tics and pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion at the Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick, thinks Hig­gins has been “a great pres­i­dent” but also says it is vi­tal that we have an elec­tion.

“Pro­vid­ing the op­por­tu­nity for this kind of na­tional di­a­logue, fo­cused more on val­ues and vi­sion than pol­icy and pol­i­tics, is re­ally im­por­tant for democ­racy. It’s a bit like a com­pany, re­vis­it­ing the mis­sion state­ment and en­sur­ing that the share­hold­ers are still happy with the gen­eral di­rec­tion be­ing taken. Check­ing back in with the share­hold­ers of ‘Ire­land Inc’ once ev­ery seven years doesn’t seem too ex­ces­sive to me.

“I’m not sure if there are any can­di­dates who could beat him… but I wouldn’t re­ally feel like a re­spon­si­ble share­holder if I didn’t take the chance to find out.”

SCARE OFF AD­VER­SARIES

The prover­bial dogs in the street now know that Hig­gins wants to keep his job. His ap­petite for an­other three-month round of can­vass­ing, in­ter­views and tele­vi­sion de­bates is much less cer­tain. There is a wide­spread sus­pi­cion that this is why he has de­layed his an­nounce­ment, hop­ing that the un­cer­tainty will scare off any po­ten­tial ad­ver­saries or per­suade them to wait un­til 2025.

“My de­ci­sion doesn’t af­fect any­one else’s de­ci­sion,” Hig­gins said in Switzer­land last month, “but mine is com­ing af­ter a lot of thought.”

This is some­thing of an un­der­state­ment, since he has been duck­ing the ques­tion ever since an eva­sive ra­dio in­ter­view with RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke at the Na­tional Plough­ing Cham­pi­onships last Septem­ber. The In­de­pen­dent TD Michael Fitz­mau­rice re­cently summed up the frus­tra­tions of many peo­ple by telling Michael D to stop “mum­bling be­hind the scenes” and just “come out with it”.

Hig­gins would not be the first Ir­ish head of state to have his con­tract re­newed with­out an­other job in­ter­view. Seán T O’Kelly was waved through in 1952, de­spite the at­tempt of an ec­cen­tric Cork-born satirist called Eoin ‘The Pope’ O’Ma­hony to take him on. Pa­trick Hillery was re­luc­tantly per­suaded to serve an­other seven years in 1983, partly be­cause the coun­try was broke and an elec­tion seemed like an un­nec­es­sary ex­pense. In 2004, Mary McAleese was widely seen as in­vin­ci­ble and the po­lit­i­cal par­ties all de­clined to put any­one up against her.

Un­for­tu­nately for Hig­gins, that last ex­am­ple is not one he can use in his favour. He des­per­ately wanted to take McAleese on 14 years ago and was hugely dis­ap­pointed when the Labour Party’s na­tional ex­ec­u­tive re­jected his can­di­dacy by just one vote. Back then he de­plored the idea of a pres­i­dent be­ing au­to­mat­i­cally re­turned, say­ing: “I do think there is a great ar­ro­gance in a po­lit­i­cal party say­ing, ‘We shouldn’t have a con­test,’ be­cause that is not for me or the Labour Party to de­cide… I have a very old-fash­ioned be­lief in the ro­bust­ness of the Ir­ish peo­ple.”

Ac­cord­ing to an Ir­ish Times / Ip­sos MRBI poll last Jan­uary, 59pc of vot­ers say they will back Hig­gins again while 31pc want to see a new face in the Áras.

“The only per­son who would come within an ass’s roar of beat­ing him would be Daniel O’Don­nell,” was re­port­edly the as­sess­ment of one min­is­ter at a re­cent cabi­net meet­ing (this in­trigu­ing prospect has al­ready been ruled out by the singer’s wife Ma­jella).

On the other hand, polls taken with only one can­di­date on of­fer are fun­da­men­tally ar­ti­fi­cial and the true state of af­fairs may not emerge un­til or un­less Hig­gins has a real flesh-and-blood op­po­nent to con­front him.

Dur­ing Michael D Hig­gins’ fi­nal pre-elec­tion press con­fer­ence in 2011, he was asked to re­peat his pledge about re­tir­ing af­ter one term. He duly did so, but this time gave him­self an im­por­tant get-out clause: “One can never pre­dict the love of the peo­ple.”

Many would-be pres­i­dents to­day are won­der­ing just how deep that love re­ally is.

PHO­TOS: GERRY MOONEY/DOU­GLAS O’CON­NOR

Wait­ing game: Hig­gins has told sev­eral min­is­ters he will run again, and be­low, the Pres­i­dent mark­ing Ire­land’s 60th an­niver­sary of in­volve­ment with UN Peace­keep­ing.

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