Why does Michael D Higgins want a second term?
President is due to announce his candidacy next week – but what will he do with it?
President Michael D Higgins. The details of how he will declare his hand are still uncertain. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
For months, President Michael D Higgins has kept his closest friends uncertain. They believed he would seek a second term in Áras an Uachtaráin. They hoped he would do so. But they did not know when he would make it known.
“I’ve been saying it to him for a long time, and he has just nodded sagely along without saying anything,” said an acquaintance of regular entreaties made to the President to run again.
A firmer indication came a fortnight ago, however. “He just said very quietly to me: second week in July.” However, the details of how exactly he will declare his hand are still uncertain.
It will be a busy week for the 77-year-old head of state. Initially it was planned to hold an event in the Áras itself, but that has given way to a likely declaration made away from the trappings of the office.
He will have to fit it around the visit of newly-weds Prince Harry and Meghan Markle next Wednesday. But, according to numerous sources, President Higgins is keen to deal with the issue now.
Even though people close to him were unsure, President Higgins has, it is now understood, long planned to declare his hand in mid-July, near the end of the Dáil’s political season.
The announcement itself will not be a surprise. But his explanation of why he wants a second term – after saying during the 2011 campaign that he would serve only one – will be of interest, along with what he intends to do with it.
It is stressed by those close to him that next week – if he adheres to his current plan – will not be a campaign launch, but rather a “bare bones” notification of his intentions.
“The main thing about next week will be the announcement,” said one figure close to the President. Then again, as another remarked, when has Michael D Higgins ever declined to elaborate on a position or line of argument?
An explanation of the President’s U-turn on his initial one-term promise is seen in simple terms. It is argued that, in 2011, when he was suffering from a knee injury, he was conscious of charges of being too old for the job.
He has strong views of what he wants to do in his second term
If he wins the next presidential election – with a contest now likely – Higgins will be 84 when he stands down in 2025. “He now feels he is in a position to make a substantial contribution,” said one source. “His health is better now.”
Another in regular contact with Higgins said he would “probably just explain it by saying he wasn’t sure seven years ago how he would physically be, but he has never been more active”.
“If the people want him, he’ll serve.”
Yet another said there was nothing “Machiavellian” about the 2011 promise. Indeed, Mr Higgins is consistently told by members of the public that he should stand again.
Plan of action
“He has strong views of what he wants to do,” it is added. The arguments the President will make for why he should have another term are emerging.
He will seek to capitalise on his widely praised stewardship of the 1916 centenary commemorations by arguing for continuity in the Áras during the next phase, which will mark the War of Independence and the Civil War.
The centenaries of the Soloheadbeg ambush and the sitting of the first Dáil take place in January, and Higgins believes his family history will help him steer the State through what could be a contentious period of reflection.
The President’s father and his uncles fought in the IRA during the War of Independence. In the Civil War, his father, John, took the anti-Treaty side while his uncle Peter fought for the pro-Treaty side.
John fell into poverty after being shunned by his employers after the Civil War, while Peter became an officer in the Army. Peter raised two of John’s children, including the President.
This history, coupled with his handling of recent commemorations, represent perhaps the most powerful argument for a second term, say his supporters.
Future of work
Another theme is expected to include the future of work, such as the creep of zero-hour contracts and precarious working arrangements, as well as a decline in union participation and the wider effect that has on societal bonds. He has spoken recently about the future of Europe and how the European Union will develop for citizens – the “European Street”, in the Michael D vernacular – in the coming years, with migration as a backdrop.
Alliance building with other nonexecutive heads of State, such as the Greek, Portuguese and Italian presidents, will be presented as arguments for multilateralism, as will the benefits of the United Nations sustainable development goals, agreed at a UN summit in New York in 2015 at which Higgins made a number of speeches.
Other key themes for a second term have been trailed at his recent summer garden parties in the Áras, such as that held last week to “celebrate sustainable communities”.
There, Higgins spoke of the decline of traditional rural communities and increasing “urban strain”. He touched on the loss of services – such as post offices and pubs – in rural Ireland and congestion and housing shortages in cities, as well as the increasing isolation of many in an era of when the “transactions of daily life” now take place on “social technology”.
Taken together, Higgins is positioning his second term towards social issues and away from the emphasis on the political economy that marked the start of his first term. While outspoken, he acted, at times, as a pressure-release valve for the political establishment during the years of austerity, when he criticised the wider economic model of the EU without directly attacking government policy.
“There was a general feeling it was Michael D being Michael D,” said one figure involved in the 2011-2016 Fine Gael-Labour coalition. “There was a voice saying certain things that people may want to say, but there is a constraint being in government. It was better to have that in the system than not.”
Even when it was felt he might have strayed beyond the boundaries of his office, it was thought best not to object.
“You’d just be playing into his hands,” said another, who argued Higgins, as a popular president, would have become a political martyr if a government introducing spending cuts and tax increases had chosen to take him on.
Higgins is unlikely to push the limits of the presidency any further, say his friends
But there were times when views from the Áras caused anger on Merrion Street.
An example is when a “a tacit signal came from the Park” that gender recognition legislation would not be looked kindly upon – understood to be an implied message that it could be referred to the Council of State – if were passed through the Dáil and Seanad before the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum were held.
Doing so would have presented difficulties for the legal status of marriages where one person was transitioning from one sex to another. A successful referendum result would remove such problems.
“Some people felt he was just trying to help the government,” said a source. “Another school of thought was: ‘That’s f***ing outrageous. He is trying to influence whether we push on with legislation’.”
Relationship with taoisigh
Former taoiseach Enda Kenny knew Higgins of old, and knew how to handle him, although some of his statements upset others in Fine Gael. Leo Varadkar is said to value the wiser counsel of an experienced operator.
But Higgins is unlikely to push the limits of the presidency any further in a second term, say his friends.
“He is not going to create a constitutional crisis,” said one. “He is very conscious of that boundary.”
The question of how he will campaign has not been settled. The only previous example of an incumbent contesting an election for a second term is an 83-year-old Éamon de Valera in 1966.
Fine Gael’s Tom O’Higgins, who came within 10,000 votes of winning, ran a vigorous national campaign, while de Valera largely relied on the stature of his office.
In a different era, Higgins will have to decide how to mix his role as head of state with the rough and tumble of a campaign.
“He certainly won’t be shying away from campaigning, but he is mindful that he is head of state,” said one ally of the President. “I don’t think there will be posters. I don’t think he’ll be going around the country.”
Another said his role as president will remain his “primary duty”, adding: “It won’t be like a Taoiseach, in that once the election is called, he is into the fray.”
Participation in interviews and debates is likely, but anything further will depend on who Higgins’s rivals are. The summer months will see aspiring candidates attempt to muscle their way on to the field by securing the required support of 20 Oireachtas members or four county councils.
Sinn Féin will continue to grapple with the prospect of standing a candidate, too.
Higgins, as the sitting president, can nominate himself. The question of whether he will do so is likely to be answered next week.
His old comrades in Labour will back him, as will Fianna Fáil, and Varadkar is also expected to throw Fine Gael’s weight behind Higgins
The question of whether Higgins is unbeatable – as is the received political wisdom – will have to wait until autumn.