Miriam Lord: Michael D will not be spared in an election bloodbath
But which of the chasers can take advantage of chinks in the presidential armour?
Presidential candidate Peter Casey following a presidential radio debate at RTÉ Radio studios, Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
At his launch on Wednesday, President Michael D Higgins used humour very effectively to deal with questions about his age, happy to take a page from the playbook of a controversial American president he wouldn’t have crossed the road to see in times gone by – unless it was to protest against him.
When Michael D torpedoed the issue of his advancing years with self-deprecating references to his new knee and healthy lifestyle, he was doing exactly what former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan did back in the day when he was running for a second term at the White House.
In a 1984 television debate, the former Hollywood actor turned politician was asked if, at 73, he was too old to be president.
“I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Ronnie drawled, bringing the house down. He even got a laugh from Walter Mondale, his Democratic opponent.
Reagan, who quipped his way through difficult situations, won by a landslide.
Michael D was ready for the age-related queries. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I have a yoga teacher, so there’s hope for all of you,” he simpered, before throwing out his best line: “I knew some people who were very ancient people when they were chronologically very young.”
He paused for effect.
“And, tragically, some of them didn’t change.”
And that was the end of the age question. (For the moment.)
Candidates chasing down Michael D Higgins in the race to the Áras will know that there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip. The graveyard of political ambition never closes.
But they know it will have to be one hell of a slip for this cup to be dashed from the president’s lips.
It could happen. But who will be best placed to take full advantage?
Privately, the chasers see chinks in the presidential armour. He may have answered all the questions asked of him at his launch, but more will come. The high turnover of staff at the Áras wasn’t mentioned and his pledge that he would serve just one term wasn’t strongly challenged. Presidential expenses will also come under the microscope.
Temperament will come into play too. After seven years of being cosseted and treated with deference, the president could eventually find the growing impudence of his challengers an impertinence too far. Because the gloves are going to have to come off at some point if they want to seriously dent the incumbent’s runaway lead in the opinion polls.
But they also know they have to weigh up any attack on much admired and hugely popular Michael D with the real possibility that the tactic might backfire, with the public taking a dim view.
Clean fight for Casey
Although that isn’t a worry for businessman Peter Casey, who declares he thinks the election will be cleanly fought while calling Michael D a disgrace for abandoning his first election debate in favour of a minor British royal and then launching a blistering attack on Seán Gallagher, the perceived frontrunner in the chasing pack, for being “missing in action” since his unsuccessful attempt to become president seven years ago.
Peter, who seems liable to say anything, has thus far delighted the media pack.
Maybe he’s the man to rile up Michael D.
It’s a long shot, but the jackpot scenario for the chasers would be Michael D losing his rag and barking: “Silence! I am The President!” Or, with seven years of successful service to trumpet, appearing too cocky.
Furthermore, while Michael D is a media darling, a good election bloodbath trumps all. Journalists are conscious of the charge that they gave him an easy time during most of the last campaign and they will pile in this time if the President is put under pressure.
Team Higgins – a substantial operation – seems very well prepared. So too does the candidate.
At the moment, their biggest challenge is to guard against complacency.
But there’s many the slip . . .
Round trip to hell and back
It will be a tough road for all the presidential candidates, except Peter Casey, who seems to be having a whale of a time.
He was the last of three panellists from the Dragons’ Den business-themed light entertainment programme to get onto the ballot paper. But he was the first to discover that he would like to be president of Ireland some day.
While he was travelling the world building up his businesses – amassing and losing two fortunes along the way before making it big with his global recruitment company – Casey always hankered after the Phoenix Park. He revealed to RTÉ’s Áine Lawlor during Wednesday’s radio debate that when he was leaving for Australia in 1982, he told his mother in Derry he would come back one day to run for the Áras.
(Having been an actual presidential candidate would look good on any one of the three Dragons’ CV, particularly abroad, when you come to think of it.)
A tough month lies ahead for the candidates.
Perhaps with this in mind, Gavin Duffy, another of the so-called Dragons, is canvassing on Saturday in Wicklow at an event called “Hell and Back”. When the election ends, no matter what the outcome, he’ll have done the round trip.
Duffy will be presenting himself as a further obstacle in the way of competitors in what the promoters call Ireland’s “toughest mental and physical endurance challenge” held over obstacle course trails up to 15km long.
Up mountains, across rivers, over climbing walls and under cargo nets with added zip wires, swamps and all that bog-snorkelling sort of thing. The participants at Kilruddery estate outside Bray will think they have survived the harshest of challenges when they cross the finish line, only to be confronted by the perennially perky Duffy, probably wearing red trousers, looking for their vote.
Then they’ll really start to suffer.
Gavin’s son Lorcan had been hoping to take part in the event but his training was interrupted when he was roped into the campaign by his father and he is now his driver for the duration.
The candidate moves on to Ballinasloe Horse Fair on Sunday. He is due to arrive at 2pm, giving him an hour and a half to decide whether to stay around for President Higgins, who is officially opening the ancient East Galway fair.
Maybe it’s some form of contagion from the presidential race, but general election talk was in the air around Leinster House during the week.
The political parties are busy getting their last few selection conventions out of the way. Dublin South-West is one of the Fine Gael stragglers. The party is taking its time choosing a running mate for sitting TD, Colm Brophy.
In the last election, solicitor Anne-Marie Dermody lost by just 152 votes to independent Katherine Zappone, who subsequently became Minister for Children. Now FG top brass feel that with the right candidate, that second seat is there for the taking and they have Dermody in their sights.
But a year ago Dermody, who also missed out on a Seanad seat, decided to leave active politics. She stepped down as a councillor for Rathfarnham, citing increased work commitments. We hear that headquarters is most anxious to get her back on the ticket for a winnable seat and is offering her the divil and all to entice her come back.
Of course, there is always the possibility that Zappone might, at the 11th hour, decide to run for Fine Gael. There has been speculation around her intentions for some time now.
Meanwhile, TDs are busily setting their constituency houses in order and are wearing out a lot of shoe leather when they return home from the Dáil. This general election chatter is coming from politicians on both sides of the Confidence and Supply agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which officially ends with next month’s budget.
Fianna Fáil won’t discuss facilitating an extension until after that deadline.
“They want nothing nailed down in Leinster House but they expect us to have everything nailed down in Europe,” complained a senior government TD.
He said there was “more than a high chance” of an election before Christmas. A particular scenario took hold among the more jittery deputies during the week, who convinced themselves that Brexit will bring about an early run to the country.
While the party leaders say nobody wants an election, these TDs argue it is only because they haven’t come up with the right excuse for one.
“Once the budget is over, the next big thing is the European Council meeting in October. If no deal is reached there, which could easily happen, we are looking down the barrel of a Brexit crash-out for the British in the spring,” said one. “So Leo could come back from Europe next month, go to the president and say he has a strong mandate to call an election because a stable government must be in place well before the Brexit s*** hits the fan. Sure how could he be refused?
“After the budget and before Brexit chaos is the time to get out. Nobody knows what will happen in the local elections in May. Everybody is worried about them too. It makes sense.”
But all this talk of the urgent need for “certainty” in the shadow of Brexit is also happening in the shadow of the rapidly running out Confidence and Supply deal which sees Fianna Fáil shoring up a Fine Gael minority government. Fianna Fáil wants to start negotiating an extension after the budget, Fine Gael is saying something has to be agreed sooner rather than later.
No agreement will mean an election.
But only if the parties involved aren’t just throwing the usual shapes before signing on the dotted line. Which seems far more likely.