GERARD HOWLIN: The canny Michael D is a better politician than he is a President

A Michael D Higgins presidential election campaign mural in Dublin's Temple Bar. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Michael D mastered the speech of protest the better to deliver it from the palace balcony, writes Gerard Howlin

FRIDAY’S election is a fork in the road between Michael D Higgins’ highly managed campaign and the aspirations of his presidency. The loftiness of the latter will not survive the cunning and machination of the former. Something will be lost, and the pity is we will all be a little poorer as a result. It needn’t have been.

How things end can often be divined at the beginning. The commitment to serve one term only, offered by a candidate under pressure and prepared to do whatever was necessary, offers the clue. Michael D Higgins is an effective politician, because he has practised self-serving expediency.

The soaring rhetoric of a sometimes great and never-less-than-adequate orator was always grounded in the practicalities of getting elected. He may have opposed coalition in the 1980s, and periodically sniped at his Labour party leader, Dick Spring, but Michael D Higgins is no Noel Browne. He is far less an idealist and much more a machine politician.

It is the machine politician on show in this campaign. It will take more than words to wash away the memory.

Contrary to expectation, Michael D adapted effortlessly to government in the 1990s. This is a man made for the inside track. He is mainstream social democrat to the core. He believes in power. His orientation is fundamentally metropolitan, as evidenced by the trajectory of his actions.

The canny Michael D is a better politician than he is a President

The periphery and margins are a great political backdrop for sure, but he faces in towards the middle. Unlike social democracy generally and unlike less-able acolytes, like Eamon Gilmore, especially, Michael D mastered the speech of protest the better to deliver it superbly from the palace balcony. That is his canniness. It is the thin line between self-belief and sincerity.

Michael D Higgins may not be a great idealist, but he has, for a long time, been an underrated politician.

What separates him from competitors now is longevity, the loftiness to which his ambition has borne him, and his ability to distil the speech of Nye Bevan and the borrowed reputation of Noel Browne into the campaign playbook of Neil Blaney.

Enda Kenny, who was first elected in 1975, may be the ‘father of the House’, but Michael D entered the Oireachtas in 1973. Apart from a few months in 2011, after he left the Dáil and before he became President, he has been in office since.

He is now set to be the longest-serving national politician of his generation and the second-longest in the history of the State. The sunset, assuming re-election, won’t come until 2025. That will be a span of 52 years. Only de Valera enjoyed longer. Frank Aiken had just 50 years in the Dáil; Seán McEntee served for 47. This is a phenomenon in motion.

The alacrity with which the responsibilities of office were swapped for excuses to avoid the rigour and questioning of campaigning over the past weeks has been telling.

The effective refusal to seriously engage at all with his competitors is cynical. Comically, one slogan used for him was “articulating Ireland”. But the man of so many words chose the smugness of silence for most of the campaign.

The canny Michael D is a better politician than he is a President

Unbelievably, the second of only two TV debates took place last night, just three days before we are to vote. Fidel Castro would have admired that. What this tells me is that it is simply unacceptable, in future, that a president seeking re-election enjoy incumbency in a similar fashion again.

There is a readymade solution in the presidential commission, comprising the chief justice, the ceann comhairle, and the cathaoirleach of the Seanad. Their constitutional purpose is to exercise the responsibilities of the office in the absence or incapacity of the President. That now needs to be extended to the campaign period, when an incumbent seeks re-election.

Too much time and attention has been given over to spending at the Áras. There are process issues, to be sure, around accountability there, but they were sensibly dealt with by the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Seán Fleming TD, and the relevant accounting officer, Martin Fraser, as secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach.

The nonsense that money spent by the President should not be questioned because the President is not answerable to the Oireachtas has been permanently dealt with. The sky didn’t fall in, and some good work was done illustrating how accounting can be improved. But there is no scandal.

The use of very limited campaign time, to follow small amounts of money, missed what chance there was for other candidates. It was sniping. It might work to pull back a President leading on thin margins. But now it is pointless.

The canny Michael D is a better politician than he is a President

How five other candidates could possibly be expected to set out their vision, presuming each had one, under the constraints of this campaign, is impossible to say. There was never a level playing pitch and there was never much of an opportunity at all.

Peter Casey was, for me, a Paddy Trump candidate. He simply sucked oxygen out of a small tank and left almost nothing over for others. Michael D must be glad of him.

Seán Gallagher tried to adopt the hauteur of the President and similarly absent himself from debate, but that fell flat.

Gavin Duffy compromised his core brand as a communicator and offered little by way of vision.

It could be inverted sexism, but Liadh Ní Riada and Joan Freeman showed more signs of being potentially interesting.

LAST night’s debate was still ahead when this column was written. Perhaps the world has been turned upside down since, but I doubt it. I see the President being re-elected. The re-elected President will, however, be a little dulled and tarnished by the cleverness of the corner boy. He is not returning amongst others, to the rough and tumble of Leinster House.

He is going alone again, into another term. In that symbolic office, words are policy and symbol. His words over seven years, and their railing against privilege, overblown to begin with, are undermined now.

The canny Michael D is a better politician than he is a President

He has fed cynicism these past weeks, not idealism.

In the greater scheme of things, all this may be marginal in our national conversation, but it was unnecessary. When he next stands at the microphone, as Uachtarán na hÉireann, a few more will be smirking, rather than smiling.

This campaign, of an almost silent President, usually beyond the reach of questioning or the interaction of the hustings, will contrast permanently with the rhetoric of values not lived up to.

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