Those seeking to challenge Higgins need councillors to feel rebellious

TDs and Senators of main parties unlikely to sign nomination papers of any aspiring Independent

 President Michael D Higgins: he has finally declared his hand, and says  he wants a second seven-year term in Áras an Uachtaráin

President Michael D Higgins: he has finally declared his hand, and says he wants a second seven-year term in Áras an Uachtaráin

 

Those seeking to challenge Michael D Higgins for the presidency may be dependent on the rebelliousness of strangers.

To the surprise of no one, Higgins finally declared his hand on Tuesday, and said he wanted a second seven-year term in Áras an Uachtaráin. He is likely to face a contest, with Sinn Féin preparing to stand a candidate and Independents of various hues co-ordinating their efforts to get a contender into the race.

Yet the fact that Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour are supporting Higgins, allied with Sinn Féin’s move, makes the task of getting on the ballot paper extremely difficult for anyone else.

Not only are the respective TDs of each party unlikely to sign the nomination papers of any aspiring Independent, but between them the parties dominate almost all councils across the country.

It will not be easy to get the support of 20 TDs or Senators, or four councils, required for a nomination.

Fine Gael’s decision, expected on Wednesday night, to support Higgins will apply to all elected representatives.

Micheál Martin has also said that his party’s support for the President applies from the “top to the bottom”, from front bench to council.

Brendan Howlin will also recommend that all Labour councillors – though much smaller in number – row in behind their old firebrand.

And if the Sinn Féin ard chomhairle decides to stand a candidate the party’s well established discipline will surely be imposed on all its representatives.

Unruly bunch

Yet councillors can be an unruly bunch. As one Leinster House figure put it: “They would back two flies going up a wall for attention. The more they are told they can’t do something the more they do the opposite.”

Already the leader of the Fianna Fáil group on Cavan County Council has called for a special council meeting to allow candidates into the race, and has said they [FF party councillors] have received no directions from party HQ on the issue.

Michael Fitzmaurice, an Independent Roscommon TD, has emerged as a broker within Leinster House. He estimates there are only enough uncommitted TDs and Senators to get one candidate into the race via the Oireachtas route, with 20 signatures from the Dáil and Seanad needed.

He has proposed something akin to a primary race, where an agreed candidate would emerge from the Oireachtas. The rest would then try their luck with the councils.

It had been assumed that some TDs inclined to support Higgins would not sign the nomination papers of a rival candidate. Senator Gerard Craughwell – one of those seeking a nomination – has cited people such as Galway West TD Noel Grealish, a former Dáil constituency colleague of Higgins. However, Mr Grealish said he would consider signing a candidate’s papers if he or she were a few names short of securing a nomination, while stressing he was fully supportive of Higgins.

Calculations

Even so, Fitzmaurice is probably correct in his calculations. The council route will offer the best opportunity for those denied a nomination from the Oireachtas, and Craughwell is likely to be one of this cohort.

“Craughwell hasn’t a notion of getting the 20 signatures, he told me that himself,” said one TD. “He told me he only had three.”

Craughwell and others must hope that councillors from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, in particular, will be in the mood to rebel.

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