Noel Whelan: Michael D Higgins makes a perfect start to his campaign
No-frills launch reflects advantages the incumbent enjoys in presidential election race
President Michael D Higgins at the official launch of his re-election campaign. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
As a historic moment it was underwhelming but as political strategy it was a master class.
On Wednesday evening President Michael Higgins formally launched his re-election campaign. He was the first of our presidents ever to do so. This is the second time that the holder of the office has been challenged when seeking re-election but it’s the first time where the incumbent has decided to run a campaign.
In 1966, when Éamon de Valera sought a second term, he merely continued about his presidential duties and declined to engage in media interviews about the election or to participate in or organise campaign events. He had the advantage in the months before that election, however, of attending a busy schedule of events throughout the country to commemorate of the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising where as president and the most senior serving commander of the Rising he was the celebrated guest of honour.
The realities of modern politics and modern media mean the President could never have adopted this stand-off approach, however. He will campaign but it is clear he will do so on his own terms and conscious of the proprieties of his office.
The Higgins campaign launch was striking for what it was not. There was no pomp or ceremony. There were no glossily brochures or backdrops and no raised stage. There was no podium party or honour guard of supporting politicians or personalities. There was no backing track, no warm-up speeches and no entertainment other than the President himself. The launch was low budget and low key and his campaign will be the same.
Instead of booking a hotel ballroom, the launch was held in a conference room across from the space which his campaign has rented in an office building in Dublin city centre. The room was overcrowded and overheated. A small number of family and supporters were cramped in with several television cameras and a dozen or so journalists.
A press officer announced the President to the podium, which stood in front of a line of cheap pull-up posters. The podium itself was decorated only with an A4 printout of the campaign slogan stuck on with Sellotape. The only indicator to any stranger that the speaker was the highest office-holder in the land was a couple of detectives standing a discreet distance to his left.
At first glance the event all looked cheap and disorganised until one appreciated that it was deliberately designed to be so.
Although he sought to dispel such suggestions at his launch it is clear this election is the President’s to lose
After a short speech which was vintage Michael D, the President took questions from journalists for an hour. He was well prepared for all he was asked. The topics have been rehearsed at length in the media for weeks. He expressed some regret for his statement at the passing of Fidel Castro, saying he should have addressed the Cuba regime’s human-rights abuses. Higgins expressed himself happy to disclose more information about expenditure in the Áras and pointed out that he had done so on his website over the summer. He batted away questions about his age, saying that he feels more energetic than he did seven years ago. He attributed this to his busy, non-drinking, non-smoking lifestyle and his occasional yoga sessions.
The press officer was careful to ensure that every journalist had asked every question they wanted to before finishing up. There would be no suggestion that as a candidate the President was avoiding any issues. There followed a pleasant photo call of the President greeting enthusiastic young staffers in his campaign headquarters across the hall.
Of course, the President doesn’t need a juggernaut of a campaign. As a popular incumbent he enjoys massive advantages. His high-profile presidential schedule will continue to be intense for the next four weeks, interspersed with occasional media interviews and a number of debates with the other candidates.
The scale of the advantage which Higgins enjoys was reflected again at the Liam Miller tribute match last Tuesday. The 42,000-strong crowd in Páirc Uí Chaoimh cheered widely when the President’s presence was announced and cheered again when his face appeared on the stadium screen.
This week the Higgins campaign launched a single leaflet, a sparse website and a limited range of merchandise. They needed to do no more. Their candidate has published a collected work of speeches and many other books, including several works of poetry. The people know what he has to say. His visage regularly adorns everything from tea cosies to children’s books.
It must be difficult to run against all that. Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy, Joan Freeman, Seán Gallagher and Liadh Ní Riada are all to be admired for their courage. Although he sought to dispel such suggestions at his launch it is clear this election is the President’s to lose.