GERARD HOWLIN: Higgins must show he has another seven years in him as president

Okay folks, it’s showtime! The late PJ Mara’s open invitation to electioneer and party would have nothing on President Michael D Higgins, writes Gerard Howlin.

President Michael D Higgins

His election campaign is well underway, and he is pulling the punters up into the Áras in their thousands.

I had the privilege of being there on Monday afternoon for a gala reception to honour the 80th anniversary of the inauguration of Douglas Hyde as the first president of Ireland. It was a honour to be included.

Higgins was in soaring rhetorical form and, at a guess, upwards of several hundred people were informed, entertained, and happy to be in such regal surrounds on a sunny day. Hyde’s biographer, Brian Murphy, from Dublin Institute of Technology gave an informed, scholarly address as well.

The day before, Michael D and Sabina were out around the corner from me on Manor St at the Stoneybatter Festival. The streets were closed, and the president wowed and roused.

It’s not happenstance, however. It’s systematic, it’s planned, and it’s for a purpose.

The purpose is the re-election of the ninth president. A series of garden parties over the summer will accommodate more than 4,000 people. I think it’s a good thing, a good use of taxpayers’ funds, and of Áras an Uachtaráin.

It doesn’t mean, however, that he isn’t pulling out all the stops for one last summer before a probably inevitably contested election. It’s a case of tosach maith, leath na hoibre.

Contested or not, there will be an election. The presence, or not, of more than one candidate is what provides an actual contest. Four of our nine presidents served two terms. Seán T O’Kelly, Patrick Hillery, and Mary McAleese were re-elected unopposed.

Mary McAleese

Only Éamon de Valera faced an opponent in seeking re-election, when a 40-year-old Tom O’Higgins ran an 83-year-old de Valera to within 10,718 votes of defeat. It was a stunning achievement and one that almost politically decapitated an Irish icon. If Dev can be put to the test electorally, why not Michael D?

To be blunt, I believe there should be a contest and a credible one. I doubt Independent senator Gerard Craughwell can provide the latter, by the way, but let’s see.

What I do want to see is a hard-fought campaign that tests the president’s mettle, allows other agendas and personalities come forward, and allows me and you decide if he has another seven years in him, at this same level of activity.

He is 77 now, and will be 84 before a second term is complete. Douglas Hyde was 78 going into the Áras and as Murphy’s biography brings out, ended his days there an invalid and not necessarily one of completely sound mind either.

O’Kelly and de Valera were of another era and at least circumscribed by the end of their terms. Hillery and McAleese were clearly vigorous and able to the end. But age matters.

Even cardinals retire at 80 and it seems popes will no longer go on and on. We are entitled to make a judgment, and we can only do that, in the round, if there is a contest.

The hustings are a world away from the garden party. The unexpected happens. You have to respond at speed and keep up apace. It’s the brickbats, the intensity, the absence of protocol, and the sweat of the street that leaves an impression on onlookers.

We look in, fascinated, sometimes appalled, but watching closely from the ditch, and like the witness in the box, we look at the demeanour as well as listen to the words when making our mind up about credibility.

Presidential elections are a cruel trade. It is not about policy, it’s about personality. There is not a lot to say, actually, unless you make a hames of it. It is instructive to remember the reticence of Michael D in the finale of the debates that marked the last context seven years ago. As havoc reaped reputational destruction all around him, he had the steel and guile to hold back.

His relative reserve gave credence to his claim of competence for the office he sought.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will not contest an election against Higgins. A previous Fianna Fáil ard fheis motion to the contrary simply won’t carry weight. Sinn Féin is coy. I sense it is reluctant but I can see the advantages of protecting project Mary Lou by running a young candidate, and possibly a young woman.

Besides Craughwell, Independent senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh has expressed interest and so has the artist Kevin Sharkey. I hear other names in circulation too.

Time and money are factors here.

Higgins has proved masterful at talking down the clock. That’s the underestimated steel and reticence, in an apparently voluble character, which served him well before and was perfected over decades in the fending off of challengers coming out from behind the dry stone walls of Galway West. In politics, you owe your opponents nothing except the compliment of surviving after them.

The nomination process requires either four local authorities or 20 Oireachtas members to get onto the ballot paper. Before Dana Rosemary Scanlon and Derek Nally broke through in 1997, it was assumed that arrangement provided a permanent lock for the main parties on the process. Perhaps it was intended to be but it is not any more.

Dana Rosemary Scanlon on the campaign trail in 2011

There is still time for determined, credible candidates. 

Money is another matter. It is not just the matter of every day for the months remaining until an expected October election — funding is required for even a basic core team, not to speak of sustaining a wider presence around the country. It’s logistically and financially a serious challenge, and it’s not for the fainthearted. That’s even before the rough and tumble of an actual campaign.

I am not for giving Michael D a free run: 77-year-olds, looking for a seven-year contract in a job where ultimately judgement is everything, need to be reassessed.

Based now on names I am hearing I doubt the ultimate outcome will be any different. But that’s before a campaign starts. It is the arena and the proving ground we provide for, and we should use it before deciding.

It is not the authority of the mandate that is at stake, it is that without a contest we cannot exercise a judgment it would be prudent for us to make in the circumstances.

I am very open to the possibility of another term for Michael D but I don’t know if he’ll be barnstorming for another seven years like he was last weekend.

We need to take that into account and make up our mind in light of whoever else offers an alternative.


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