The bad news though is that two of the three largest parties in Ireland have turned their backs on the office. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, for self-serving reasons, have decided not to contest it, and instead to throw their weight behind the incumbent president. Labour has also decided to support Michael D Higgins, but that’s understandable. They nominated him seven years ago and fought to get him elected. If he had needed a nomination this time, which of course he didn’t, they would naturally have nominated him to contest.
But both FG and FF opposed Michael D the last time, in the case of Fianna Fáil through a sort of surrogate candidate in the form of Sean Gallagher. There’s never been a moment in Michael D’s career as a Labour representative — and it’s been a long career, because he first ran for election almost 50 years ago — when he wasn’t opposed by the other two parties.
Some of the elections he fought, especially in the early ’80s, were especially bitter affairs. And in the ’90s, one of his other opponents, Des O’Malley, offered the view that he would go mad if he ever was appointed to ministerial office.
That’s all changed now, changed utterly. They both see him as a grand chap altogether. Grand because he can save them the cost of fighting an election.
In making the decision to opt out, I believe they are undermining the office, and they’re ensuring that Michael D won’t have a full mandate if and when he is re-elected.
We’re in the first phase of the presidential election now. This is the one where the office of the presidency is seen as a bit of a joke. What a waste of money having an election. Sure what is the presidency after all, except a retirement home?
Bertie Ahern was at it on the Marian Finucane show on Sunday. According to him, Sinn Féin were following Karl Marx’s tactics (huh?) in putting forward a candidate, despite the fact that the office was only ceremonial. Mind you, you could almost feel the sour grapes dripping out of him. I can’t imagine him being nearly as dismissive if there was even the remotest chance of his taking part.
But throughout the next month or so, until the contest is joined, they’ll all be at it. You can see it on social media already. The cost of an election would be better spent on almost anything else. It’s just a well-paid heap of nothing. The president has no power — sure what can he or she do?
In due course we’ll get into the second phase, when the character and the personality of each of the candidates will be thoroughly examined. That’s essential, because this job is primarily a test of character and personality. I hope this time it will be a bit fairer than the last couple of occasions.
There are journalists who have plenty of reason to be ashamed of some of the things they dragged up in the last two contested elections. The treatment of Adi Roche, Mary Davis, and Dana, and the unfair accusations levelled against them, reflected much more on the people making the accusations than they did on the accused. But they were nonetheless intensely damaging, and left scars on good and decent people.
Then the third phase, when the people will choose a president. And from that moment on — at least this is the way it has tended to be — we’ll be proud of the choice we made. And the person we select will take office with our support. The presidency will matter — and be seen to matter.
Now that we’re in the first phase, we really should try to get rid of some of the mythology. Every president we’ve ever elected in Ireland — each in his or her own way — has served an important function. It’s not a function that involves the wielding of executive power, we all know that. But the presidency has influence and different presidents have used that influence in different ways.
Mary McAleese, for example, had no role whatever in the negotiations that led to the peace process in Ireland. But she used her office, diligently and well, to create a strong underpinning atmosphere for that process. The peace process has often been described as removing violence from a sectarian and political conflict. Mary McAleese’s Áras was a place where sectarianism got short shrift.
Mary Robinson ceased to be able to change the law in relation to a range of issues she had passionately espoused during her years as an activist, legislator and lawyer. But in her term, and because of the atmosphere her election created, profound changes happened in relation to discrimination, the criminalisation of gay people, and family law. None of that was a coincidence.
So all this nonsense about the presidency lacking power needs to be abandoned — it’s just trite and superficial. The president changes things when he or she sets out a sense of purpose and vision. Things start to happen when they identify priorities. The people — and the groups of people — they invite to the Áras get noticed. The issues discussed at meetings or seminars or even parties in the Áras command attention. The occasional use of the powers granted to the president under the Constitution, although limited, attract huge coverage and comment.
Power isn’t everything in other words. The influence that a president can have on the character of the country is what matters. That’s why it’s so important, in hopefully a civilised contest, to be able to get a really good look at the character of the person who wants to shape the character of the country.
And of course the contest matters for another fundamental reason. This job is ours, nobody else’s. The president answers to us, and nobody else. On inauguration, the president takes a solemn oath (at the moment it’s a religious oath, which is wrong, but that’s another day’s work). That oath obliges the president to his or her abilities to the service and welfare of the people of Ireland. Nobody else in Ireland is ever asked to make such a declaration.
It’s why we have the right to make a choice. And it’s why the political system does us no service when they opt out, and effectively limit the choice to a ridiculous extent. If the big parties don’t want to contest it they need to take the padlocks off the nominating process. It is a disgrace that there is effectively no possibility for more than one independent candidate to get a nomination in the Houses of the Oireachtas, because Leo and Micheál have decided it should be so.
But despite all that, we’re going to have a contest, and we will be able to make a choice. That’s good for us, good for democracy, and good for the office.
It’s even, I suspect, going to be good for Michael D.