History on Higgins’s side if he hopes for re-election as agreed candidate

Growing consensus that political parties will back President for second term

President Michael D Higgins: “Michael D is regarded as unbeatable if he goes again,’’ said one long-time Leinster House observer.  Photograph: Getty Images

President Michael D Higgins: “Michael D is regarded as unbeatable if he goes again,’’ said one long-time Leinster House observer. Photograph: Getty Images

 

President Michael D Higgins will have history on his side if, as expected, he seeks a second term in the Arás. Speculation is mounting he will be an agreed candidate, running unopposed.

No sitting president seeking re-election has been opposed since Tom O’Higgins, a Fine Gael TD who later became chief justice, challenged Fianna Fáil’s Eamon de Valera in 1966.

When Fianna Fáil’s Dr Patrick Hillery made himself available for a second term in 1983, he was not also opposed. Similarly, when Fianna Fáil’s Mary McAleese sought a second term in 2004, having prepared for an anticipated election, she was returned unopposed.

There is a growing consensus that the various political parties will endorse President Higgins if he seeks a second term. He is guaranteed the support of his old party, Labour, who nominated him in 2011.

With an election due in October, he is scheduled to announce his intentions in July.

“Michael D is regarded as unbeatable if he goes again,’’ said one long-time Leinster House observer.

There are other factors such as the absence of high-profile candidates among the other parties and, critically, the cost involved, which can be anything up to €500,000.

Given that a general election could happen at any time, and there are European and local elections due in the summer of next year, cost is a critical consideration.

Little talk

Although the importance of the office, particularly its symbolism, is not being underestimated, there is little talk about it in Leinster House.

The fragility of the Fine Gael-led minority Government, with the possibility of an election at any time, and next year’s elections dominate political discourse.

Four Ministers – Eoghan Murphy, Charlie Flanagan, Simon Harris and Richard Bruton – recently publicly backed President Higgins for a second term.

The consensus within Fianna Fáil is that the decision by RTÉ broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan to firmly rule herself out as a candidate means the party has no serious contender to turn to, assuming it wanted to contest the election in the first place. The party is awaiting the President’s decision, but is expected to support him.

While Sinn Féin is publicly talking about contesting an election, some TDs are privately not so sure. They view consolidating the party’s position, with the aim of participating in government, as the priority for new leader Mary Lou McDonald.

There is always the possibility of an Independent candidate putting his or her hat in the ring. Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell has indicated he will contest the election, and said he was confident he could secure the required support of 20 Oireachtas colleagues to get a nomination.

However, that might be more difficult than he thinks. A number of Independent Oireachtas members are saying privately they will back President Higgins if he runs again.

Mr Craughwell’s chances in an election, if it happens, are being dismissed in Leinster House.

Rivalries

President Higgins, as an outgoing president, can nominate himself. If there is a contest it is unlikely to be as divisive as 1966, when strong Civil War rivalries still existed between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

It was also the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, with Mr de Valera that last surviving commandant. Although he should have romped home, he just about made it, securing 50.5 per cent of the vote against Mr O’Higgins’s 49.5 per cent, with a majority of just 10,000.

Fergal Tobin, in his book The Best Of Decades, Ireland in the 1960s, described it as the most intriguing election of the decade.

“O’Higgins ran a splendid campaign, presenting himself as a man of a new generation, best suited to the changed times,’’ he wrote. “The Presidency is not an office to attract political promises, but O’Higgins stumped the country, pressed the flesh, and conveyed the vague idea that he would somehow strip away the patina of remoteness and formality associated with Áras an Uachtaráin.’’

Tobin wrote that Fianna Fail became sufficiently worried about Mr O’Higgins to engage in “old-style mud-slinging’’.

No candidate

Speaking in Cork, the then Fianna Fáil minister for lands and the Gaeltacht, Micheál Ó Moráin, said that for a time it appeared no candidate would oppose the president. But The Irish Times, he claimed, had spoken, demanding that Fine Gael oppose the president.

“We all know The Irish Times is the mistress of the Fine Gael party, and mistresses can be both vicious and demanding,’’ Ó Móráin added.

Tobin noted that Mr O’Higgins went to Swinford in Mr Ó Móráin’s native Mayo to reply.

“I do not know that The Irish Times is the mistress of our party, and I certainly do not know anything about the vicious demands of mistresses,’’ said Mr O’Higgins. “On these questions, I bow to the superior knowledge of Mr Ó Móráin.’’