'Irish Times' view on the presidential election: vacuous contest, predictable end

One of the most important moments in the democratic cycle was reduced at times to a grotesque parody of itself

October 28th, 2018: President Michael D Higgins has been re-elected for a second term, but from Brexit to Trump, he faces a challenging seven years. Irish Times Political Editor Pat Leahy reports. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

The best that can be said of the presidential election is that it is over. A shallow, vacuous campaign that sputtered to a predictable conclusion with Michael D Higgins’s re-election leaves everyone who took part in it diminished and raises troubling questions about the process of electing the head of state.

One of the most important moments in the democratic cycle was reduced at times to a grotesque parody of itself. Only one candidate – the incumbent – appeared remotely capable of doing the job or qualified for what it entails. That he won, and won with the biggest margin of victory any individual has achieved in a presidential election, should be celebrated.

Attention will naturally focus on the strong showing by Peter Casey, a US-taxpayer whose chief contribution to Irish public life has been to express hostility towards Travellers and those on social welfare. But it’s reassuring that a social democrat and progressive intellectual with a long record of public service received more votes than all the other candidates combined. That’s important when reactionaries and demagogues are sweeping to power across Europe.

Higgins’s success was never in doubt. Although he is a popular president, he could have been pushed hard, and perhaps even defeated, by a strong challenger. But with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil having chosen not to put up candidates of their own, Higgins’s patchy, at times evasive performances and blurring of the lines between sitting president and presidential candidate were unlikely ever to cost him.

Casey’s late surge into second place, albeit on a low turnout, suggests his provocative comments and the ensuing attention made him a magnet for a protest vote and those who feel unrepresented or unheard by the mainstream. His strong showing should not be overstated, but it is a useful warning against complacency nonetheless.

Joan Freeman and Casey’s fellow plutocrats-turned-TV light entertainment personalities, Sean Gallagher and Gavin Duffy, fell far short of what was required.

But the biggest disappointment is Sinn Féin’s. Liadh Ní Riada’s paltry share of the vote is a big setback – one that suggests Mary Lou McDonald miscalculated badly in one of her first major decisions as leader. The result may also show incipient signs that as Sinn Féin is absorbed into the mainstream, it is vacating space at both ends of the political spectrum for others to fill.

With the centenaries of the war of independence and the civil war on the horizon, Higgins will soon find himself back in the spotlight on sensitive terrain that he navigated skilfully in his first term. That will allow us to forget this vexing election and give the president the opportunity to show he genuinely possesses the desire and energy to deliver for another seven years.

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