No reason why President Higgins could not have resigned to campaign fully

Presidential campaigns often take a bad turn but this one is damaging the dignity of the office

 President Michael D Higgins leaving RTÉ on Monday evening. If the presidency is about dignity and mutual respect, the rather lofty tone of his letter to Seán Gallagher was unnecessary. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

President Michael D Higgins leaving RTÉ on Monday evening. If the presidency is about dignity and mutual respect, the rather lofty tone of his letter to Seán Gallagher was unnecessary. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

On Monday, a London rail commuter observed that the hot news of a royal pregnancy had achieved the impossible: strangers were talking to one another on the train. Predictably, commentators despaired of the plain people’s priorities, what with the dire news emanating from Brussels. There is no mystery. Happy, straightforward and simple beats angry, complex, negative or tragic any time, even when the black smoke from Westminster is thick enough to swallow a whole island.

Still, the coincidence was marvellous. World watches Westminster punch itself in the face again… quick, look, over there, they’ve pulled a royal baby from a hat!

Our version of the royal baby is the presidential campaign. Simple, entertaining, with enough drama to keep people chatting at the bus stop. Quick, look who’s not showing up for the TV debate!

On Monday, RTÉ and the Áras incumbent played it like a circular reality show. The President’s short interview on the Six One news turned on his decision to ignore the debate due to kick off a few hours later down the corridor. Ah, go on, why don’t you stay? coaxed Keelin Shanley. “I’ve been answering questions since 1969 – I have agreed to do two debates,” he replied in firm, presidential tones. In doing so, he was putting the presidency before his candidacy, he said. Hmmm. How precisely he was doing this was not clear. So was that his final answer, then? It sounded like it. Still, RTÉ had to honour the reality-show vibe by ending on a cliffhanger; viewers would have to tune in to the debate to find out, we were told.

An epiphany

The nine o’clock news came and went with glamorous scenes of candidates and partners being greeted at RTÉ but still no confirmation from RTÉ News. Perhaps it was really down-to-the-wire stuff, with Seán Gallagher parked down the road, poised to pounce if the President had an epiphany. Confirmation that he had stayed in the car, or wherever, came with the sight of just the four hapless remainers walking on to the studio floor, separately, as their names were announced, like awkward X Factor contestants.

Higgins the candidate, who had deliberately absented himself, had presumably directed a spokesperson to ring in to a live show

The first question basically invited the four to have a dig at the two absentees and they duly fell for it. About 20 minutes in, when Claire Byrne stalled proceedings to announce that the President’s spokesperson had rung in to say that “allegations on expenses for the dog are completely inaccurate”, the wholly bizarre nature of the debate was exposed. Higgins the candidate, who had deliberately absented himself, had presumably directed a spokesperson to ring in to a live show, demanding that RTÉ rebut allegations about dog-grooming expenses made against Higgins the President. Or was it the other way around?

Was he sitting in the Áras or in his campaign HQ in the city centre at the time the call was made? Is it possible to be both candidate and President?

Lofty tone

If the presidency is about dignity and mutual respect, the rather lofty tone of his letter to Seán Gallagher, noting the distinction between his campaign headquarters and the Áras, was unnecessary.

Gallagher’s strategy is sadly transparent; he is 36 points behind Higgins and his only chance is to bring the incumbent down. A polite reply from Higgins assuring him of his fullest attention at that night’s debate would have sufficed.

As sitting President, Higgins clearly felt entitled to be prescriptive in a way the other candidates did not

If nothing else, the past few weeks have highlighted not only the vacuous idiocies spouted by grown-ups seeking elevation to a ceremonial position, but the nonsense of a candidate continuing to serve up delightful photo opportunities doubling as official presidential engagements during a campaign. That may not be the President/candidate’s intention but it is the predictable outcome.

His debate and interview schedule was finalised with RTÉ weeks ago.

As sitting President, he clearly felt entitled to be prescriptive in a way the other candidates did not. Only Gallagher demurred at this arrangement and he has a point. Presidential campaign dates are set in stone, which for ordinary candidates, means – in the main – yielding the diary to campaign demands for a predictable few weeks every seven years. Either way, Higgins the President had no public engagements on Monday night. It’s not a particularly long or demanding campaign; he is not doing a door-to-door canvass. So by declining to appear on an RTÉ flagship debate, what was the message? That he was placing himself visibly above all others? Limiting his exposure to vexatious questions?

Personal destruction

Presidential campaigns have a habit of turning to farce and personal destruction but this one is damaging the dignity of the office.

Although such circumstances are rare, a repeat should be avoided. The Constitution states that the president’s term of office expires at midnight on the night before the incomer’s inauguration (which means an 11-hour interregnum). It should be possible to amend this, to allow, say, for the president to resign at the outset of the campaign.

Vacancies have occurred before when presidents died, resigned or took another job and the sky didn’t fall. In such cases, the Presidential Commission seamlessly takes over (the chief justice, the ceann comhairle and the cathaoirleach of the Seanad). It also steps in as required while the president is away on State visits.

Hear that jarring sound of a candidate referring to the President of Ireland as Michael? That should be enough to motivate the decision-makers.

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