Michael Clifford: We may learn lessons from needless election

There was no exceptional candidate in a presidential field with three waffling Dragons. If this was a worthwhile exercise in democracy, we’re in trouble, writes Michael Clifford.

Michael Clifford: We may learn lessons from needless election

There was no exceptional candidate in a presidential field with three waffling Dragons. If this was a worthwhile exercise in democracy, we’re in trouble, writes Michael Clifford.

How was it for you? The suspicion is that, for most people, the presidential campaign was pure awful. If this was a worthwhile exercise in democracy, we’re in trouble.

In the first instance, there was no competition. Michael D Higgins stood head and shoulders — metaphorically — above all the other candidates.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael decided to leave well enough alone and not contest the election. Money was saved and everybody got to join in on Michael D’s victory, but democracy was not well served.

Having said that, it would have taken an exceptional candidate, backed by one of the main parties, to make a real contest of it.

Michael D has done a good job. He has, over the last seven years, carved out a place of special affection with large swathes of the population. He gives good vibes and knows his onions — what more could you ask for in a president?

Therefore it would have taken a lot to dislodge him once he decided he wanted to hold onto the job all the way into his mid-eighties. Somebody like, say Miriam O’Callaghan, backed by Fianna Fáil, would have given him a run for his money. But she wasn’t interested this time around. There may be a few others who would have done well, but not many.

Into the vacuum scrambled three Dragons spitting fire and waffle. Two of them latched onto what they thought Seán Gallagher had unlocked seven years ago. Back then, Gallagher very nearly exploited total disenchantment with established politics.

His belief that he was shafted in the last week prompted him to return carrying his grievance. And in his wake came Gavin Duffy and Peter Casey, because they looked at Seán and came to the conclusion that this presidential lark was a walk in the park. They were seven years too late.

Duffy found it hard to get past himself. What surprised about his candidacy is that it was so poor in an age when PR is so sophisticated and he made his packet from media training, PR, and the media. The physician was in no position to heal himself.

Casey was the wild card, projecting the appearance of an amiable chap who, oh by the way, pays nearly all his taxes in the US rather than the country of which he aspired to be titular head. He did make a splash, though.

Joan Freeman threw her hat in the ring on the back of her work in suicide prevention. She simply wasn’t of the calibre required for the job. Sinn Fein’s Liath Ní Riada wasn’t either.

Ms Ní Riada grew into the role as the campaign went on, but she was hindered by a late start, and shackled to some personal and party baggage. To be fair to her, she o entered politics just five years ago and was elected to the European Parliament on a Sinn Féin wave. Throwing her into the presidential election was cruel.

So the electorate was left Michael D. He only managed a fair to middling campaign, but that didn’t matter. He was so far ahead, only a scandal of Haugheyite proportions could have holed his campaign. The only dirt dug on him concerned some evidence that his office was not the best at financial husbandry.

His re-election should pose a couple of questions about the office. The Constitution demands that candidates be at least 35 years of age, but there is no upper age limit on what is a direct election for a seven-year term. Is this discriminatory of youth or even wise?

The other question concerns the nomination process. When Éamon De Valera designed the process in the 1937 Constitution, uppermost in his mind was that it would be a filter to ensure that not every Tom, Dick, and Harriet could get on the ballot paper.

Candidates require the backing of four local authorities or 20 members of the Oireachtas. Dev thought only somebody with a degree of substance, and most likely backed by one of the parties, could reach that threshold. They didn’t have reality TV in Dev’s time.

In today’s world, councillors can feel very unloved and powerless because of how centralised governance is in this country. Nominating a candidate to run for presidency is one lever of power that is theirs alone.

Interviewing celebrities from the TV and elsewhere provides a little shot in the arm for these politicians. As a result, their critical faculties in evaluating candidates may be somewhat compromised by the reflected glow of celebrity. The nomination process might be an appropriate task for review by the Constitutional Convention.

While Higgins was the primary winner of this contest, he wasn’t they only one. The splash made by Casey saw his standing rise from 2% in opinion polls to 23% of the vote.

He scraped the barrel of public discourse by lashing out at Travellers, and once his gander was up, he threw in those on social welfare.

Despite his mini victory, don’t rush down to Paddy Power to back him as making a splash in politics. He could run for the European Parliament next June, which would see him safely removed to Brussels. There is a possibility, if he were to run, that he could snatch a seat in Donegal in the next general election. But the smart money says he wouldn’t be happy to sit meekly on the backbenches.

His comments did get a reaction and it is one that the mainstream parties ignore at their peril. In particular, his comments on the Travelling community hit a nerve among some people.

The frequent refrain from vox pops and anecdotes filtered back to the political/media bubble in the last few weeks was largely that he was saying what others actually felt.

There is no doubt that a serious problem exists in parts of the country between Travellers and the settled community. These problems are rooted in mores, attitudes, and, in particular, a lack of respect between the two groups.

Yet at official level, it would seem that any exploration of these problems are quickly shut down lest somebody be accused of racism.

Casey, in a crude and inflammatory manner breached that silence. The popular reaction he received — with 23% of the vote — will not be lost on some of the candidates contesting next year’s local elections.

How fitting then if the re-elected president were to gazump and attempts at further cheap shots by initiating a conversation about the problems that exist. Such a conversation would have to include not just Travellers but those among the settled community who believe their lives have been adversely impacted by the actions of some from the Travelling community.

Such a development might at least signal that the election wasn’t a complete waste of time.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up