Miriam Lord: Áras openness, Michael D and seven more years

President Higgins received a warm letter of congratulations but did Brazil's Bolsonaro?

 President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina after last weekend’s result was announced. Photograph: Tom Honan

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina after last weekend’s result was announced. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

So the dogs have the paws under the presidential table again and the sitting tenants have the lease renewed for another seven years. No doubt the messages of goodwill were flying through the letterbox at Áras an Uachtaráin, but we won’t be told about them because the Áras rarely discloses anything about what goes on behind the hall door.

It has always been thus, but maybe our re-elected First Citizen will make good on his campaign promise to introduce more transparency where the working of the office is concerned. It’s was already overdue well before his time. And not just on the expenses front.

Because it is already in the public domain, we know that the European Commission wished Michael D Higgins all the best, sending warm congratulation on his second term and wishing him “every success for the years ahead”.

Commission president Jean Claude Juncker sent a nice letter. “Your understanding of the power of words to hurt or heal and to empower or divide is the mark of a true statesman. Your commitment to equality and sustainability as the guiding principles of your mandate will help to ensure a positive future for your country” he wrote. “I have very fond memories of our conversation in June and I look forward to your continued support and friendship.”

Maybe nobody wrote or called. Maybe he was snubbed by the likes of Macron and Merkel and Trudeau

The letter was dispatched on Monday, the same day that reporters in Brussels were wondering if the commission would be sending its congratulations to another new president, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil.

But, of course. A spokeswoman confirmed that Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk would sign a congratulatory letter to the far-right politician who has been dubbed the “Tropical Trump”.

It would, however, be somewhat different in tone to the one which winged its way to Áras an Uachtaráin. “We respect the democratic choices made by the Brazilian people. Brazil is a democratic country with solid, strong institutions,” she said. “And we expect all future presidents to continue to work to consolidate democracy for the greater good of the Brazilian people.”

No mention of fond memories, though.

Former Greek foreign minister Yanis Varoufakis was delighted with the Irish result. “The people of Ireland are exceedingly lucky to have Michael D Higgins as their President. He is the nearest we have to a philosopher-president, combining remarkable erudition with the realistic humanism progressive politics so desperately needs today” he tweeted.

But what did Vincent Browne think? Varoufakis knew the answer, retweeting Vincenzo’s tweet a few days before the election.

“What is surprising in this Presidential campaign is not that Michael D has such overwhelming support, but that ANYBODY would indicate support for the Dragon windbags. There is NOBODY in Ireland better suited to be President for the next seven years than Michael D.”

Lots of world leaders sent messages to the Brazilian president. It’s what they do. They don’t tend to keep these things a secret. We’re not sure our international friends ignored Micheal D Higgins or sent him lavish congratulations because the Áras is unable to disclose whether he got any such communications from fellow world figures.

According to an Áras spokesman, these would be “private messages”. Maybe nobody wrote or called. Maybe he was snubbed by the likes of Macron and Merkel and Trudeau. Maybe Trump sent his good wishes to the people of Iceland. Maybe Putin sent a puppy. Who knows? But they tell us Downing Street sent a tweet. Tell us something we don’t know. Normal service has resumed at the Áras.

A proud Charlie

The Minister for Justice was happy on three counts on Thursday. He snuck out of the department and took a half-day off. His youngest daughter Sophie graduated from the Dublin Business School with first-class honours in social science. And it was his birthday.

The graduation ceremony took place in the RDS and Charlie Flanagan look every inch the proud Dad. Then it was back to Iveagh House for Friday’s British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Nice photo, though.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan TD, pictured with his daughter Sophie Flanagan at her graduation on Thursday. Photograph: Robbie Reynolds
Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan TD with his daughter Sophie Flanagan at her graduation on Thursday. Photograph: Robbie Reynolds

Drew mix-up

Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick, late of Fine Gael, was on his local radio station during the week talking about the new Garda Commissioner’s recent appearance before the Dáil’s justice committee.

Michael Reade of LM/FM asked why Fitzpatrick didn’t take the chance to ask Commissioner Drew Harris, who is a former deputy chief constable of the PSNI, what he knows about the IRA murder of sheep farmer Tom Oliver in 1991.

Fitzpatrick has been vocal in his calls on Sinn Féin to come forward with information about the crime. Six years ago, the new Commissioner gave evidence in closed session to the Smithwick Tribunal, naming a member of the IRA army council who ordering the killing.

Fitzpatrick got a little flustered by Reade’s tough line of questioning

Reade asked Fitzpatrick why he didn’t ask Harris what he knows about the crime? “This is the head of the police force in this country who says he knows who killed a local man.”

When the TD replied he didn’t get the chance, he was reminded he spoke for about 25 minutes. “You asked about cameras on uniforms and different issues and there was no rush on you, you had a lot of time and a lot of opportunity and for whatever opportunity you didn’t ask about Tom Oliver.”

The TD, who left Fine Gael over the abortion issue and is now going to run as an Independent in the next election, got a little flustered by Reade’s tough line of questioning. At this point, listeners who may not have been paying attention to this interview on a very serious subject might have pricked up their ears.

“I will definitely get Drew Barrymore to come down to county Louth and to meet the Oliver family,” declared Peter.

Perhaps Peter had been watching ET the night before. Or Charlie’s Angels.

Although judging by that howler, it was probably Scream.

Prickly critters

Labour’s Brendan Howlin stopped on his way to his party’s national conference on Friday morning to collect a possible successor to his leadership. The chosen one certainly possessed the one trait which Labour Party leaders seem to possess in abundance – prickliness.

In recent memory, they have all been rather thin-skinned. Precious and prickly, although some more than others. Dick Spring set the bar high and those who followed did their best to emulate him. The pretender to Howlin’s throne had to be put in a crate for everyone’s safety.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t Alan Kelly. That’s not to mean this won’t happen to him before the conference is over. Brendan collected a hedgehog. It ambled into a Labour councillor’s house in Wexford during the week looking for a nice place to see out the winter.

A hedgehog in the Dáil car park.
A hedgehog in the Dáil car park.

Cllr George Lawlor took care of the seriously underweight hedgehog which wasn’t strong enough to hibernate and needed to be fattened up. Once it was ready to travel, party leader Howlin was enlisted to help in re-homing the prickly critter. He took it in his car to Hedgehog Rescue in Rush, via Leinster House, in a cat carrier.

We understand the animal made strenuous efforts to escape when it entered the car park, thinking that it had reached the perfect hibernation destination. To be fair, the Dáil was in recess all week. Brendan successfully delivered his charge to the sanctuary, along with five boxes of kitten food as a donation towards the upkeep of the residents.

Only seven years until the next presidential election!

Peter Casey missed a trick during his election campaign when talking about his dismal effort at winning a Seanad seat two years ago. He only got 14 votes. Actually, he didn’t. He got 14,000 votes. This is because one vote in a Seanad election is worth 1,000 votes for counting purposes. This is because the electorate is very small but the list of candidates for each panel is relatively large.

As the PR system is used, it is mathematically easier to allocate seats with each vote puffed up by the power of 1,000. This can be misleading for people who are unaware of the fiendishly complicated method used to elect our senators. It also gives a nice ego boost to members of the upper house who can look at the completed data and imagine that they powered to their seats with tens of thousands of votes when they only got 30 or so first preferences.

While Casey continues to get an inordinate amount of media attention and is loving every bit of it, Sinn Féin would rather forget the presidential election. However, party leader Mary Lou McDonald showed she has a sense of humour when she showed up during the early stages of the count wearing a scarf festooned in poppies.

Her candidate, Liadh Ní Riada, who performed below party expectations, came in for stick from colleagues when she intimated in an interview that she would be prepared to wear the poppy emblem if elected president. Either that, or Mary Lou got dressed in the dark.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald at the count centre with her poppy scarf. Photograph: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald at the count centre with her poppy scarf. Photograph: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Either way, she ditched the poppies by the afternoon and appeared before the cameras wearing a plain red scarf. It’ll all be forgotten before long. A president has been elected and the short diversion of the campaign is over. People will quickly go back to worrying about more important things.

But in seven years time, do we really want a repeat of the shenanigans of 2018? Anybody not connected to a political party but with aspirations to a stint in the Phoenix Park should start work on their campaign now. And the television and radio head-honchos should sit down and work out a better way of holding presidential debates.

They didn’t work this year. Six people in a studio, all expected to talk about other candidates’ policies and other candidates’ visions, generated some heat but very little light. Perhaps next time out, individual interviews should be considered before descending to the traditional free-for-all. Standing at a lectern reading out clichéd syrupy soundbites is also pointless, unless it involves a drinking game where you have to take a swig at the mention of words like “pillars” and “conversation” and “share” and “inclusiveness”.

And anybody who is ambitious for Ireland or passionate about our shared belonging should be ruled out immediately.

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