FF and FG may leave Higgins run unopposed for second term
Campaign cost ahead of general election may calm parties’ enthusiasm for fielding names
President Michael D Higgins: recently changed his mind on just one term in the Phoenix Park being the “length of my aspirations”. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
President Michael D Higgins has all but declared he wants a second term in Áras an Uachtaráin, but the intentions of other interested parties ahead of a potential presidential election in the autumn are not yet clear.
While Higgins recently said he had “changed his mind” on just one term in the Phoenix Park being the “length of my aspirations”, he is not expected to formally show his hand until the summer.
Senior political figures consistently say the President will be allowed the time and space to come to his own decision but, as of now, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael seem content to allow Higgins a free run.
While they may feel compelled to field a candidate in the event of an election, it is equally likely that the big two will decide to back Higgins regardless of what other parties do.
A recent example is when Enda Kenny, as leader of Fine Gael, said he would support Mary McAleese for a second term even if there was an election back in 2004. McAleese was returned unopposed, and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may want a repeat of that experience, to save their resources for the general election.
If Fine Gael were to stand a candidate, MEPs Sean Kelly and Maireád McGuinness, as well as former tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, are often mentioned as possibilities. Broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan is consistently linked with Fianna Fáil.
For the Labour Party, the prospect of a second Higgins campaign gives it the opportunity to remind itself that it can actually win elections. Expect Brendan Howlin to be four square behind his former Dáil colleague.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald believes a contest should be held and has also suggested her party could easily find a candidate to stand against the President. Speaking privately, others in Sinn Féin are not so sure.
‘Lot of money’
One TD who would also like a presidential contest said that the issue had yet to be considered by the Sinn Féin executive, the ard chomhairle, and noted that, when it does, a “set of considerations” will come into play.
“It’s a lot of money,” said the TD. “I’m not sure there is anyone in the party who would want to do it. The people who would be your strongest candidates in terms of vote-getting may not be the ones you want to stand.”
Pearse Doherty, the party’s finance spokesman, may be a recognised name, but his absence from the Dáil in the lead-up to a general election would arguably be damaging to Sinn Féin.
Others such as Dublin MEP Lynn Boylan have also been mentioned in recent speculation, but would not come with Doherty’s instant name recognition.
Other options, according to Sinn Féin sources, include recruiting a candidate from outside the party ranks or facilitating the entry of another person into the race through the provision of the required 20 Oireachtas signatures. In the latter case, Sinn Féin would not have to spend any of its own money or even actively campaign.
Even if a Sinn Féin candidate stood and lost, a presidential contest would allow the party gauge its support in constituencies around the country ahead of the next general election, as well as providing the opportunity for it to strengthen its brand.
Elsewhere, the number of Senators expressing an interest in running for the presidency speaks volumes for the esteem in which the Upper House holds itself.
Fianna Fáil’s Mark Daly and Keith Swanick, as well as Independents Padraig O’Ceidigh and Gerard Craughwell, have publicly declared an interest. Outside the Oireachtas, artist Kevin Sharkey has said he wants to stand.
For the Independents, the most obvious route to get on the presidential ballot paper is to accumulate the required 20 signatures from TDs or Senators, given the high number of non-party TDs in the current Dáil and Seanad.
Many Independent members of the Oireachtas have already ruled out signing Craughwell’s papers, although they have yet to say that publicly or even tell the Senator himself.
A better option for Craughwell and others to get into the contest proper, perhaps, would be to secure the support of four local authorities.
One Independent Oireachtas member remarked recently that if the presidential contest comes down to a fight between Higgins and Craughwell, or other non-party candidates, then significant pressure may be brought to bear to avoid an election.
In such a scenario, with Higgins an almost inevitable victor, the argument will be made that the country does not need to expend time or energy on an unnecessary election.
That could be the President’s best chance of avoiding an election. In this anti-establishment age, however, it could be portrayed as a stitch-up by political elites, and backfire spectacularly.