TO SAY someone is too old to do something is viewed by many now as an unforgivable insult. But here goes anyway — our President Michael D Higgins is too old to serve a second term as President.
I say this with some regret because he has been a very fine President and a steadying and wise presence at a time when we needed it most. But when you consider that at the end of a possible second term in 2025 he would be 85 years old; that pushes the boundaries of any active ageing initiative.
There is no doubting that our currently 76-year-old head of state is in full possession of his mental faculties, as he proved with the verbal wall he constructed this week as to when he would be announcing whether he would go forward for a second term, and why that announcement would be no sooner.
You see he will be so busy concentrating on the job that he will be making no announcement until September next year. He has upcoming trips to Australia and New Zealand, to countries in the European Union, and is likely to take up an invitation to Canada proffered by prime minister Justin Trudeau.
He began an interview with RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke at the Ploughing Championships by saying he had ruled nothing out, which isn’t strictly true given that he did actually firmly rule out a second term way back in 2011 just after he was first elected. He explained this week he had said that after what had been a very long campaign.
Actually even back then his age was a factor and this fact is what prompted much of the questioning around a second term.
If President Higgins is to remain on for a second term he would be over 80 for a significant part of that term. I know many octogenarians who lead full and fulfilled lives but the thing about being President is that you are the head of state and there are many demands on your time. President Higgins explained during the radio interview how the Government had asked him to go to Australia and New Zealand next month. He had a “very full programme”.
In all honesty could any Government feel fully comfortable in five years’ time asking an 82-year-old man to take himself off to the southern hemisphere for a month representing Ireland; to undergo the rigours of a presidential tour with all the protocol and pomp which that entails?
No more than Enda Kenny not wishing to stand down, and delaying as long as possible, this looks like a situation of someone who has been involved in politics all their lives, who has reached a pinnacle and done a very good job, but doesn’t realise that the time has come to hang up their spurs.
Reading between the lines President Higgins is actively considering running again, has probably even decided to do so. But there was a definite disingenuity to him saying he won’t answer the question concerning his intentions because he is concentrating on his job, and to do so would be an unwise distraction.
He mentioned the eight or so garden parties he and his wife would be hosting next summer, not to mention the other functions that he will host and attend over the next year. All of these people with whom he will be interacting are entitled, he said, to his “full concentration and that’s exactly what I’ll be doing”.
Now leaving aside the fact that men are acknowledged at not being good multitaskers and foreign trips can be arduous, and garden parties while pleasant and an important part of the work of any incumbent in the Áras, hardly too taxing, these reasons are fairly threadbare.
Needless to say our President delivered the reasons with wonderful aplomb.
He had the double advantage of the location of the interview, outside of a radio studio, surrounded by a crowd, and also that it is not really the done thing for journalists to put our head of state through a thorough grilling on such a matter.
Our President, a politician who served 25 years in the Dáil and nine in the Seanad, would have known well his future intentions would be a question when he agreed to the interview.
Nevertheless he did a very good “don’t hit me now with the Presidency in me arms” impression during his chat with the Radio One presenter.
He also said this was “just my decision, and it doesn’t affect anyone elses, and I’m just being dead straight and therefore I haven’t ruled anything out”. This, viewed at its most benign, was more foxiness from our President.
If he carries through on that intention, to make the announcement next September, it leaves just one month before his term expires, effectively cutting off any potential rivals at the knees.
The President also spoke of how he receives “great support from the Irish public” and this is absolutely true. There is a genuine affection for him. People feel he does a really good job as our President. But people would also recognise now the intrinsic unfairness in his approach of not announcing his intentions until the last minute.
Indeed he must recognise it himself because this is what happened him in 2004 when he wanted to stand then for the Labour Party but wasn’t successful in getting nominated.
The tactic he is using now was used by President Mary McAleese in 2004 who announced late in the day that she wanted a second term, much to his then annoyance.
T SEEMS clear that if he does announce his intention to stand for another term that Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and obviously the Labour Party, would not put up a candidate against him.
What they’re not saying out loud is there is also the possibility of a general election next year and the cost of that combined with Presidential one could be ruinous.
Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell recently said he would put his name forward to ensure there is a presidential election next year. But in order to secure a nomination for Áras an Uachtaráin a person must get the backing of at least 20 TDs and senators, or four local authorities.
We’ve also had the rather tantalising prospect of a possible run at the Áras by broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan. If Michael D does want a second term he should be prepared to fight for it.
But what he should really be considering now is a well deserved retirement after many decades of very fine public service.