DANIEL MCCONNELL: Race for the Áras now looks like a non-starter

Poor Gerard Craughwell. Those Fianna Fáil feckers. How could they do it to him?

Senator Craughwell has harboured ambitions to become president later this year and has repeatedly called on the current holder of the office, Michael D Higgins, to clarify his intentions about seeking a second term.

Now it has long been clear that President Higgins wants a second term, despite saying back in 2011 that one term was all he wanted.

Craughwell, at least, says there should be a contest and that no one, even a popular president, has a divine right to continue in office.

He claims he has the requisite 20 signatories from Oireachtas members to formally become a candidate.

But then they did it to him.

Earlier this week, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin confirmed that his party will not be fielding a candidate to challenge President Higgins and will be supporting his candidacy, should the President decide to seek a second term in office.

Clearly, while President Higgins has not yet formally declared, overtures from the Áras have been made to allow Fianna Fáil to conclude President Higgins wants a second term and therefore have decided to back him.

Race for the Áras now looks like a non-starter

Mr Martin, speaking following a meeting with his parliamentary party, said: “President Higgins has served the country with great distinction over the course of his first term both at home and around the world.

He enjoys widespread support across the country and has demonstrated his understanding and connection with communities across a broad range of issues in recent years.

For these reasons, I spoke with the Fianna Fáil frontbench and parliamentary party and confirmed our view that Fianna Fáil will not field a candidate to challenge President Higgins and will be supporting his candidacy, in the event of him seeking a second term in Áras an Uachtaráin.”

Fianna Fáil’s decision not to contest the position is significant on several levels.

Firstly, given the dominance of Fianna Fáil in Irish politics since its foundation, the fact the party is not contesting the highest office in the land for a second time in a row reflects how far its star has fallen.

Following their drubbing at the polls in the 2011 general election, it was understandable that Fianna Fáil did not formally contest the presidency that year.

It turned out that Seán Gallagher was seen as a Fianna Fáil candidate and it was this line of attack which saw his campaign disintegrate at the final hurdle, allowing President Higgins to romp home.

However, the party has recovered somewhat since that low of 2011.

It had better than expected local and European elections in 2014, which ended mutterings about Martin’s position as leader.

It then had a better than expected general election in 2016, more than doubling the number of seats in the Dáil from 20 to 44. They later added Stephen Donnelly to their ranks, which was seen as a vote of confidence in Martin.

That recovery has stalled in the past year or so and Fianna Fáil now finds itself consistently well behind Fine Gael in the polls. Martin also finds himself far less popular as a leader compared to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

This is a reverse of how it was when Enda Kenny was in office.

Also, the party is still reeling from the abortion referendum where 31 of Martin’s TDs opposed him on the question of backing the proposal to allow for terminations.

That famous picture of the 31 TDs gathered in protest lingers in the mind and has reinforced an image of a party which is out of step with modern Ireland, urban and rural.

For Fianna Fáil to back President Higgins, it is a recognition on some level that the public has yet to forgive them fully for their past crimes.

Secondly, it has been an open secret in Leinster House that neither Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil haven’t any major interest in contesting the presidency.

This is true for several reasons. The cost of a presidential campaign is considerable, and you would get little change out of €500,000 once a campaign was over.

Were an election to take place, it would be in October this year, and given the budget, Brexit and increased talk of an early general election, contesting the presidency is an unwanted distraction from the main business of trying to win power.

Leo Varadkar and Michael D Higgins.
Leo Varadkar and Michael D Higgins.

Therefore, a popular president in Michael D is a convenience to both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

They can back him, or at least not oppose him, save their money for the general election, and spare themselves the heartache of what are normally bitter, nasty and divisive campaigns.

But on that question of a general election, there is an increasing sense that it could happen as early as September.

Martin and Varadkar have been engaging in a war of words in recent days through the media, and I understand it that Fianna Fáil is preparing on the basis of an autumn election.

Martin accused Varadkar of acting like he has a “divine right” to govern and told him to “cop on”.

Varadkar in Brussels kicked back by saying: “All I say is that Fianna Fáil has been sending a lot of mixed messages about the confidence and supply agreement.

Last month they were openly talking about voting in favour of a motion of no confidence in the housing minister. This month they’re talking about not voting for the budget so we really need to understand whether or not Fianna Fáil is committed to the confidence and supply agreement in the long term.

So, in light of this increased talk of an early election, I would not be surprised that Varadkar and Fine Gael follow suit and say they are perfectly content to allow President Higgins a second term without a contest.

But where would that leave poor Senator Craughwell? Or Aer Arann boss and Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh.

Both men have expressed an interest in contesting but in reality neither man is seen as having a realistic shot as of now of beating President Higgins were it to come to a fight.

Fianna Fáil’s move was an attempt by the establishment to orchestrate a situation where the country is spared a presidential election contest.

The hope is that Craghwell, O’Ceidigh and anyone else who may have an idea of running, convince themselves to bow out.

While they may be correct in seeking to force a contest, their pleas may fall on deaf ears and while Craughwell says he has the 20 signatures needed, he may find in the heel of the hunt, those names will fade away.

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