Why I’m going to vote against incumbency and entitlement

Michael D Higgins has been earning €247,000 for the last seven years and receiving his €19,000 lecturer’s pension, writes Victoria White

Why I’m going to vote against incumbency and entitlement

THE person most responsible for making this an appalling presidential election is President Michael D Higgins.

Why is he running? He said he wouldn’t. Haven’t seven years been enough for him to show what he can do as Ireland’s First Citizen?

Why didn’t he move aside and let a proper field of candidates develop? Was it sheer self-interest that made him declare so late?

He’s the problem here, folks. A wonderful man in many ways, whose political orientation I largely share, and the only candidate in this week’s RTÉ TV debate to mention the existential threat of climate change.

I was an arts reporter while he was the minister for culture and he was brilliant. He redefined the role. With an able adviser in Colm Ó Briain, he built a significant arts and culture infrastructure, most of which we still have.

I could never stand Higgins’ hair-fixing, hand-waving, and name-dropping. There isn’t anything you need say that you can’t say simply and I don’t need to hear the names Kant and Heidegger before I pay attention. However, no-one can take away from Higgins what he did for the arts and for the Irish language.

High office is a burden, surely, but it is also a privilege and Michael D has had enough of that privilege.

I can’t understand why he wants to continue. Does he not want to read, write poetry, smell the roses and the coffee? Hasn’t he made enough cash, for himself and his wife and his four children, for decades to come?

He has three homes — one is an apartment — just like Padraig Flynn in his heyday. He’s been earning €247,000 for the last seven years and receiving his €19,000 lecturer’s pension, while he has been housed, fed, and watered in the Áras.

In the terms defined by the economist Thomas Piketty, the Higgins empire is well enough funded to last several centuries at least.

I share Joan Freeman’s frustration with all the questions about the Lear jet trip to Belfast. These decisions are made by people around the high office, not by the high office itself. The extravagance funds these people’s sense of their own importance.

The civil servants of smaller countries often try to buttress their sense of relative unimportance with needless spending: lavish hotel suites are booked for ordinary politicians, while official minders are routinely flown out to help grown-up politicians get between plane, train, and hotel in foreign countries.

Presidential candidates Sean Gallagher and Joan Freeman
Presidential candidates Sean Gallagher and Joan Freeman

Mad stuff. A stop should be put to it all and Michael D must insist, in his next presidency, on public annual accounts.

No-one really cares about all of this, however. Michael D is our President and, as Shakespeare put it, “There’s such divinity doth hedge a king.” Injure him and we feel we are injuring ourselves. It feels like bad taste to criticise him at all.

That’s why a second term should not be open to presidents. There should be a referendum to change the Constitution accordingly and lower the possible age of presidents to the possible age of all politicians: 18.

That’s what it would take to genuinely shake up the presidency and ensure such a funereal campaign as this will never happen again.

It makes this campaign more stultifying that our political parties, with the honourable exception of Sinn Féin, have rowed in behind their king. Worse still, all the official critics of Irish society — which journalist Brendan O’Connor called “the anti-establishment political establishment”, in his evisceration of the last presidential race — are firmly in Michael D’s camp, for it was they who crowned him.

Published three days after that election, O’Connor’s opinion piece brilliantly described the infamous RTÉ Frontline debate in which the late Martin McGuinness accused Gallagher by way of a false tweet, causing him to falter and lose the election.

O’Connor said it was a moment rigged by this “Official Ireland”: “And then McGuinness stood, placed inside Gallagher, smirking, looking out at Gallagher, squirming. The fact that his disability means that Gallagher can often not seem to be making proper eye contact didn’t help. And in that moment it didn’t matter that the accusation wasn’t totally accurate or that it was coming from McGuinness and was based on the evidence of a known, self-confessed criminal. Gallagher panicked and looked tricky. And the useful idiots in the ‘Official Anti-Establishment’ seized on it.

“This was what they had been waiting for: to finally get rid of that gauche little man and his unsophisticated wife. And so they swirled up, in an unholy alliance with McGuinness, and they finally did for Gallagher.”

Meanwhile, “Official Ireland” was crowing. In Olivia O’Leary’s Drivetime diary on RTÉ radio, a couple of days later, she announced that it was fitting that Michael D’s victory was “a triumph of substance over illusion”. It was fitting, she added, that Higgins’s “fate was secured” after the flooding of Dundrum Town Centre, that symbol, in her view, of Celtic Tiger consumerism (because Higgins was one of the Celtic Tiger’s greatest critics).

Those shops in Dundrum Town Centre were people’s businesses, their livelihoods. The missiles I flung at the radio didn’t stop her voice intoning that our “mature vote” for Higgins meant we had a self-confessed intellectual in the Áras, “a small man with a big mind”.

“So, where are the small minds?” I screamed at the kitchen walls. Are they the people who engage in a terrible thing called — whisper it — trade? The people who toil in their silly little shops and factories as they fund the entire arts, media, educational and political establishment?

It was by drawing lots that RTÉ lined up the candidates for Tuesday night’s debate, but it looked like they were pitting the so-called Dragons, or trade, against public service.

When Liadh Ní Riada jibed at Gallagher that he had been “lining his own pockets” since the last election, he made a very important point: that business people’s taxes paid politicians’ salaries. Ní Riada herself takes €47,000 after tax, a far cry from the average industrial wage she claimed to earn.

Michael D has not himself belittled trade or the people who engaged in it.

But I can’t stand the self-centredness of “Official Ireland” and I can’t vote with them. I have yet to decide between Seán Gallagher and Joan Freeman and I know my vote will be no more than a protest: Against incumbency, against snobbery, against entitlement.

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