Higgins’s campaign will be a careful balancing act

Stephen Collins: President must balance decorum of office against campaigning

President Michael D Higgins effectively kicked off his re-election campaign in Croke Park last weekend. Not only did he parade on to the pitch before the two thrilling All-Ireland hurling semifinals but made an important public statement calling for a ban on gambling advertising in sport.

The President’s comments on gambling and sport were very apt. It is an issue to which the political system has been far too slow to respond but it did represent a highly unusual intervention by a President as convention dictates that he should not intervene on a matter of public policy.

The President’s performance at the weekend indicates the difficulties facing his potential rivals in the forthcoming election campaign. He will continue to perform his official duties for the next three months attracting the respect and publicity that goes with his office. How will any of them be able to compete with that?

If Higgins is perceived to be taking advantage of his office to promote his own campaign the voters might well react negatively

The other side of the coin is that Higgins himself will face a dilemma. Can he get involved in the hurly-burly of an election campaign and participate in robust televised debates while maintaining the decorum that applies to the performance of his public duties?


De Valera

This will be only the second time in the history of the State that an incumbent president has had to fight a campaign for re-election. The previous occasion on which it happened was in 1966 when Éamon de Valera, who was virtually blind at this stage, ran for a second term at the age of 84.

His challenger was prominent 49-year old Fine Gael politician Tom O’Higgins who had nothing like the same public profile and it was widely assumed that de Valera, the dominant political figure in the country for half a century, would win a second term in a canter.

Dev did not formally engage in an election campaign and RTÉ, then very much under the thumb of the Fianna Fáil government, decided in the interests of balance that it would not cover the O’Higgins campaign even though he toured the country in a bus, spoke at public meetings and issued a series of statements.

While de Valera did not officially campaign his public appearances were covered on television and there was lots of them as the campaign coincided with the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and the president was a prominent figure at almost every event as the surviving senior commandant and as head of State.

Fine Gael had a dilemma about how to counter this. The party’s front bench met on March 29th, 1966, and decided that rather than get angry a softly, softly approach would be best. The minutes of the meeting state: “It was again stressed that during the campaign nothing should be said about the health of the other candidate but that they should stress that this was a new age and a new generation calling for a new President.”

Another front-bench meeting endorsed this approach and decided to pursue a positive campaign while making no reference at all to the Fianna Fáil candidate. The election came close to providing the political shock of the century. De Valera just scraped home by 10,000 votes and O’Higgins carried Dublin.

In the aftermath it was clear that the voters had reacted negatively to the attempt by Fianna Fáil to manipulate the outcome. The partisan approach adopted by RTÉ had caused considerable public comment and it rebounded on de Valera’s campaign.

There may be some lessons for all involved in the forthcoming campaign. If President Higgins is perceived to be taking advantage of his office to promote his own campaign while avoiding debate with the other candidates the voters might well react negatively.

On the other hand the President faces the difficulty of how to maintain his dignity if he does agree to take part in televised debates which will inevitably get heated. The presidential election campaigns of 1990 when Mary Robinson was elected, of 1997 when Mary McAleese won her first term and 2011 when Higgins himself was elected were all characterised by robust and often bitter exchanges.


President Higgins is in a strong position, as the opinion polls testify, but he will certainly be challenged about why he decided to go back on the commitment he gave during the 2011 campaign that he would not seek a second term. Other candidates will also be entitled to tease out his vision of the presidency and to put forward their own.

It is inevitable that a number of television debates will be proposed and it is difficult to see how Higgins can avoid taking part in at least one of them. Staying away could be more politically damaging than the risk of participating.

One thing that is very different from 1966 is the attitude that is likely to be taken by the media in general and RTÉ in particular. The national broadcaster is unlikely to facilitate the President if he declines to participate in debates and the chances are they will go ahead without him in that scenario.

Given developments of recent days with a range of potential Independent candidates emerging and the prospect of Éamon Ó Cuív running as an unofficial Fianna Fáil candidate it promises be an intriguing campaign.