Diarmaid Ferriter: An election will be good for the integrity of the presidency

Michael D Higgins has to do something without precedent; separate the office from the candidate as a sitting president

When President Higgins announced his intention last month to put himself forward for a second term it was widely noted that there is only one precedent for a sitting president having to face an election, Eamon de Valera in 1966, and that Dev did not campaign.

That did not mean, however, that the election was a sedate affair. It generated controversy, there was much mudslinging and the result was a surprise, a reminder that the unpredictability and coarseness of presidential elections is not a recent development. The story of the 1966 election was the remarkable performance of Fine Gael’s Tom O’Higgins who was defeated by only 10,617 votes; a margin of less than 1 per cent of votes cast.

That is even more notable given that O’Higgins was a surprise candidate. Liam Cosgrave, as a new leader of Fine Gael, was cautious about an election during the year of the Golden Jubilee of the Easter Rising because of its potential to reopen old wounds from the revolutionary era and because FG had little prospect of victory. Cosgrave also had to contend, however, with what political commentator John Healy described as old grandees in his party “bursting for a contest” with Dev, whose civil war sins they could not forgive.


This newspaper played a key role early in 1966 in prodding Fine Gael to take Dev on with an editorial titled “Not a Squeak”, a reference to FG’s muteness about the possibility of an election. The editorial was biting about Cosgrave giving the impression of being “as much [FF leader] Mr Lemass’s lieutenant as his opponent”. Cosgrave and others responded to that and other pressures from within; rather than choosing to heap pressure on an older, national FG figure – former taoiseach John A Costello would have been an obvious choice – they opted for the 49-year-old O’Higgins (born just after the 1916 Rising) by stating the country needed “a young and active president”. The irony was that O’Higgins had tried to persuade FG to propose former Clann na Poblachta leader and one time chief-of-staff of the IRA, Seán Mac Bride, to take on Dev and when that was shot down, O’Higgins also suggested Costello.


O'Higgins was a barrister and Fine Gael TD for Laois/Offaly; he had been minister for health from 1954-7 and his family was steeped in the Irish parliamentary tradition; his great-grandfather was nationalist MP TD Sullivan who wrote God Save Ireland and his uncle and godfather was Kevin O'Higgins, the minister for justice assassinated by IRA members in 1927. O'Higgins was genial, popular and a moderniser on the "Just Society" wing of FG. His energetic campaign, covering five weeks and 20,000 miles, was without the assistance of RTÉ coverage as the State broadcaster had decided that if Dev was not campaigning it had to ignore O'Higgins in the interests of balance.

O’Higgins’s wife Therese and their seven children were prominent during this “American style” campaign, which included questioning sacred nationalist cows such as compulsory Irish, and raised the hackles of FF bully boys, including Dev’s “campaign” manager Kevin Boland, who later jeered at FG’s quest to bring the “patter of little feet to the dreary corridors of Áras an Uachtaráin” while Dev “was like Cúchulainn tied to the standing stone . . . The pygmies came out of retirement and gathered round for the kill, and the poisoned arrows that had failed over the years were reproduced”.

Dev and Lincoln

That was a conveniently one-sided assessment. FF compared Dev to "the immortal Lincoln"; minister for education Donogh O'Malley insisted, in a reminder that the soon to be Limerick liberator of learning could also be a tribal clown, "it is impossible to conceive of anybody voting against de Valera except those who want to witness another attempt at a fascist dictatorship". The boorish minister for Gaeltacht and lands, Micheál O Móráin, emitted his share of bile, suggesting The Irish Times was the "mistress" of FG and a "rag, which stood for . . . British imperialism". In response, The Irish Times castigated the perpetuation of "old hatreds" and FF's indulgence in "pygmy abuse".

But The Irish Times also had reason to be pleased; it had asked, when the initial reluctance to contest the election was apparent, "why set up the paraphernalia of an elective office when more often than not the politicians will decide the matter themselves?" That question chimes with recent assertions but it is also likely that President Higgins will see the election campaign as a positive given that if he is to prevail, it will be as a result of the people deciding, which bolsters the mandate. The interesting thing, however, is that President Higgins has to do something without precedent; separate the office from the candidate as a sitting president. Given his skill, wiliness and humanity he has no reason to fear that challenge, but how he will embrace it remains an intriguing question and, given the tenor of previous presidential elections, a potentially controversial one.