Noel Whelan says he is not running in presidential race

‘We have a good president and it is likely he will be re-elected’

Noel Whelan has decided not to run in the presidential election. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill

Noel Whelan has decided not to run in the presidential election. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill

 

Barrister and columnist Noel Whelan has ruled himself out of the presidential race after having spent months considering it.

The former Fianna Fáil advisor, who ran for the party in the 1997 general election, said he sat down over seven or eight weeks with a dozen people he worked with on recent referendums to consider running for Áras an Úachtaráin.

The political pundit, who writes a column for The Irish Times, had decided not to mount a campaign if President Michael D Higgins stood again, but revealed that he reconsidered the possibility of entering the fray over recent weeks.

“Firstly, I was surprised at the extent of the reaction of people saying they wanted to have an election, and I think there is a substantial minority that has issues around the President contesting again in circumstances where he promised one term,” he said.

“Secondly, the fact that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael didn’t have a candidate, and weren’t in a position to compel their councillors, then that had opened in my case at least a pathway to getting a nomination into the ballot paper.”

Ultimately, he decided that “we have a good president” and it is likely he will be reelected.

Mr Whelan said Fianna Fáil were right not to run a candidate as they “were only going to torture themselves” over it. “They made a mess of it last time, (Clare TD) Timmy (Dooley) was at the centre of it,” he said.

“I think Gay Byrne was one of the approaches at that stage in 2011.”

But he agreed the senior Opposition party have “to an extent” left an open field for Sinn Féin.

However, he suggested Sinn Féin would use the race to “maximise their political opportunity”.

“If Sinn Féin were serious about the presidency, one would wonder why they didn’t make the decision about their candidate in May or April,” he said.

Mr Whelan, who describes himself as from a relatively humble background — one of a family of 12 raised in a small rural post office in Co Wexford — said he was “very conscious” that presidential candidates can be met with a suggestion of “who do they think they are?”.

It is “an amazing office”, “the most interesting, potentially most significant and in many ways the most useful office in our political system” which requires “a big reach and ambition”.

“But if I didn’t have reach and ambition in my life I wouldn’t be where I am now,” he told the Today With Miriam programme on RTÉ Radio One.

Mr Whelan said the race will not be like previous elections, where the incumbent is not running and “you can re-imagine the presidency, put forward proposals as to how you would repurpose the presidency.”

But in the circumstances where sensitive commemorations are looming as well as Brexit, he believes there won’t be room for a wider discussion about a new type of presidency.

Mr Whelan said he would have looked towards the type of “building bridges role” forged by Mary McAleese.

“It is really important now because I think the question of Irish unity, or not, is going to be an essential question before the end of this presidential term, and over the next decade or so,” he said.

“And in some ways it is too important a conversation — that issue in particular — to be left to the views of an individual political party.

“It is something we have to be careful to lay out pathways for the unionist population in particular to walk and to be comfortable to and perhaps, despite initial resistance, to be persuaded of the merits of an inclusive, diverse Ireland. A President can do that.”

Mr Whelan said Ireland is a “dramatically different place to what it was in 2011, and that pace of change will continue over the next seven years.

“I think the majority of the public take the view that Michael D will be more than able to chart through that, with the type of presidency he has had to date,” he said.

“It of course requires some element of change. But I think it is inevitable people will not get away from, and perhaps shouldn’t get away from, the view of the presidency as being the type of presidency Michael D has put in place.”