Sinn Féin to play anti-establishment card with choice for presidency

Some in party feel Higgins can’t be beaten, but election would offer a huge platform

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Mary Lou McDonald and Ciarán Quinn at the Sinn Féin ardfheis in  November 2017. Sinn Féin’s executive council, the ard chomhairle,  is expected to decide that the party should select a candidate to run against Michael D Higgins in a presidential election. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Mary Lou McDonald and Ciarán Quinn at the Sinn Féin ardfheis in November 2017. Sinn Féin’s executive council, the ard chomhairle, is expected to decide that the party should select a candidate to run against Michael D Higgins in a presidential election. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Sinn Féin’s executive council, the ard chomhairle, meets on Saturday and is expected to decide that the party should select a candidate to run against Michael D Higgins in a presidential election.

The anticipated move, coupled with a determination of most Independent members of the Oireachtas to allow at least one party candidate into the race, would make it certain that Higgins will have to campaign to win a second seven-year term in the Áras.

Given the President’s popularity, many have questioned the wisdom of pitching a candidate against him in what will likely be a costly and time-consuming election.

However, with Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour all supporting the incumbent, the opportunity for Sinn Féin to again cast itself as the anti-establishment choice is appealing.

It had been claimed that the ard chomhairle could go against the wishes of Mary Lou McDonald, the party’s new leader, who believes there should be a contest. But in reality the doubts many in Sinn Féin had about challenging the President have largely now been dispelled, so the prospect of the executive embarrassing its boss is almost zero.

Most on the ard chomhairle, according to insiders, agree with McDonald. There were differing views within the parliamentary party itself until recently, but TDs who either felt an affinity to Higgins and did not want to stand against him, or those who questioned if an election was worth the time or effort, now say the party should be in there.

“I was agnostic but now October is quite close,” said one TD of the expected election date. “There are differing views but there are some fairly persuasive arguments on the side of standing somebody.”

Doubts

Off-record comments from within the party in recent weeks and months expressing doubt about running a candidate and questioning such an approach were viewed dimly by those at the top of Sinn Féin, it is understood.

The view of McDonald and her senior officers has won out and most now claim the party can win the election itself, although others are more realistic.

“It is very hard to see anyone beating Michael D,” one TD said. “The only person who will beat Michael D would be himself.”

Another deputy said Sinn Féin always contests elections in order to have its political “vision front and centre” – with issues such as Irish unity expected to feature heavily in the campaign. The TD added that there was “caution in relation to the cost and the popularity of the incumbent”.

A number of party figures believe Fianna Fáil voters will have a “proxy” Independent candidate to support, a suspicion that was heightened with Seán Gallagher’s appeal to county councils this week to facilitate the entry of Independent candidates into the race.

The ideal candidate is described by a senior party figure as “a very strong woman” who can speak to a “modern, new” Ireland

“What about Gallagher, who’s he stalking for?” asked one source. “FF at their lark maybe.”

A TD claimed there is a “probability” someone from the Fianna Fáil “stable” will stand, adding: “I can’t see them just stepping back. It’s not lost on me that there will probably be an FF-er in.”

In 2011, the ard chomhairle was presented with a proposal that Martin McGuinness should stand for the presidency. Saturday’s decision will be only on the merits of standing a candidate at all, and a selection process will follow.

Candidate

The ideal candidate is described by a senior party figure as “a very strong woman” who can speak to a “modern, new” Ireland.

A number of names are the centre of speculation, such Lynn Boylan and Liadh Ní Ríada, the party’s MEPs for Dublin and Ireland South respectively.

Ní Ríada says 14 years is too long a period for one person to hold office without having a mandate renewed, and did not rule out standing.

She told The Irish Times a potential run would require “serious consideration”, adding she has not held any “official” discussions within the party about contesting.

Against stiff odds of beating Higgins, TDs and party figures are adamant a Sinn Féin candidate can win.

Look at David Norris in 2011, said one, pointing out that the Senator was a frontrunner at one stage of the campaign. Sure, Seán Gallagher nearly won it too, argued another.

But a colder rationale of Sinn Féin standing is also offered.

“It will be to benefit our party and put our vision for a new Ireland, North and South.”

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