FERGUS FINLAY: I’m in the race because I want a real debate about the future for all of us

IT might seem a bit arrogant to say so, considering I want to be part of it, but I honestly believe Ireland needs, and must have, a presidential election next year.

Part of the reason I decided to put my own name forward last week, with just over a year to go, was to try to do whatever I could to make certain there would be a contest.

There has been a lot of speculation in recent weeks that an agreed candidate might “emerge” for the office, saving the political system time and effort in running a presidential election campaign.

This argument has been based on the possibility that a general election could happen any time in the next six months.

If it did, this reasoning goes, a new government would be installed in office to replace the present one.

Everyone involved in politics would be exhausted, the political parties would be broke after the election, the new government would want to get on with its work, and presumably Fianna Fáil would want to concentrate on starting the process of rebuilding that it needs to do. So it would be in all their interests to find someone they could all agree on and avoid an election altogether.

There’s only one problem with that argument. Two problems, actually.

First, it’s essentially an anti-democratic position. Yes, it has happened before that the political system has contrived to agree a candidate between them. Every time that has happened, politicians has been accused – with considerable justification – of putting their interests over the interests of the people.

And second, it completely devalues the office of the presidency. If the political system were to agree to avoid a presidential election next year, then whoever would be appointed would have a reasonable prospect of serving in the office, assuming they wanted to, for 14 uncontested years. That would mean that more than a quarter of a century would pass by before the people would have any say in who their president should be.

At his or her inauguration the president swears a solemn oath to protect the constitution at all times and to dedicate his or her abilities to the service and welfare of the people of Ireland.

What is the point of a presidency that is supposed to be above politics in this way and yet would be beholden to the political system and not to the people themselves? Whatever about filling the office in that way in an emergency, it is surely totally undermining of the office to avoid an election for pragmatic political reasons.

The difficulty is of course compounded by the length of the presidential term. When he was drafting the constitution, Éamon de Valera seemed to have a bit of a fixation with seven-year terms.

Article 16, for example, says that a Dáil term should not be longer than seven years, although it does go on to say that a shorter term may be fixed by law.

In article 12 it says the president has a seven–year term and may have a second one (unfortunately, it doesn’t say, as it should have, that the presidential term could also be shortened by law). If it had, I suspect we would have arranged things so that presidents could be asked to face the people every five years, as the Dáil does.

But the most important line in article 12 is that “the president shall be elected by direct vote of the people”. It is that line that makes the presidency the property of the people, just as the oath of office makes the president the servant of the people.

For those two reasons, it is critically important, if we are to have a president, that it should be the people who choose who the president is.

We’ve had eight presidents so far and five of them were elected by the people, at least the first time around (in the case of Éamon de Valera, he had a harder time getting elected for his second term than for his first, and only squeaked in by 51% to 49% for his opponent).

So we’ve had a better and richer tradition of electing our president than we might think. And that tradition must be continued. Next year, at least, it will be. I’ve had the temerity to put my own name forward for a Labour nomination and I intend to seek that nomination as hard as I can.

At this stage it looks as if two of us at least – Michael D Higgins and myself – will be seeking the nomination, and I can’t think of anything healthier than that in a democracy.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for Michael D. So I won’t be running against him, I’ll be running for a democratic purpose.

I’m hoping that a contest for the nomination that isn’t about personalities and bitterness, but is instead about direction and values, might help to begin the process that we badly need of engendering some fresh confidence in politics.

At the end of the day, after what I hope will be a lively and mutually respectful debate, one of us will win. Whichever of us that is, we’ll know we’ve been through a tough and fair battle and can go on to support the other in the next phase of the contest.

There’ll be time enough over the next few months to set out all the arguments, but I do believe this really strongly. We have never needed a contest like this more. The behaviour of some politicians – and churchmen and bankers and business people and some of the professions – has created a chasm of disillusion and cynicism right through the community.

It has eaten away like a corrosive acid at hope and confidence. It has replaced respect for politics with more distrust than I’ve ever seen.

A presidential election is not about power. It’s not about who serves in government or who makes the executive decisions for the next few years. But it is about influence.

The election itself – the atmosphere it generates, the participation of thousands of people, the fact that candidates are debating about ideas and not promises – all of that has a profound influence in terms of beginning to shape the sort of country the people want to see.

And the choice the people make in the end – the candidate they choose – will be the person who best articulates and represents a set of values that the people want to see enshrined in the direction politics takes from then on.

It’s because the presidential election is not about power, in the strict sense of that term, that it gives us a real opportunity to discuss the kind of broad leadership and vision we want. That’s what makes it exciting – and the last two elections we had were really exciting and hard-fought contests.

As we get closer to the election next year, I’m ready to bet that more and more people will get involved at every level and that this election will generate a lot of passionate debate about our future direction. What could be more exciting – or important – than that?


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