Oliver Callan: Higgins’s age is an asset, not a liability

Hugely popular with the young, at 77 Michael D also inspires the older generation

President Michael D Higgins at the Civic Theatre in Tallaght: his term has demonstrated no lack of energy. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

President Michael D Higgins at the Civic Theatre in Tallaght: his term has demonstrated no lack of energy. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

If this presidential race had a theme, it would be ageism. Every last one of President Michael D Higgins’s rivals have dropped the passive aggressive “energy” bomb throughout the campaign. Gavin Duffy has been the Snarler-in-Chief on the energy issue, despite not exactly looking like a marathon runner himself.

There’s no way to read the energy thing other than as a crude dig at Higgins’s age. In 2011 he was considered by some to be too old for the job at 70. Unfair media pressure led to his declaration that he would serve just one term. It was the only pledge that came back to haunt him, but there was little discussion about why he was forced to make that promise in the first place. It goes without saying that his term has demonstrated no lack of energy on the part of the First Citizen.

Indeed many of his speeches have almost operatic crescendos and heady flourishes. He is seldom accused of spending too little time on his feet once he gets behind a lectern. Compare his high-octane delivery to that of his rivals. Joan Freeman is monotoned and chilly, though at least she’s energy-efficient. Seán Gallagher sounds like an audiobook for slow readers. Gavin Duffy, bland master of dull sales-speak, is apparently a pro-communications coach. Liadh Ni Riada talks as though she’s being held hostage and forced to compete in the worst election campaign in history.

If a candidate happened to be in a wheelchair, would there be such overt references to their physical energy?

The ageist approach against Higgins shows that it’s not just the Constitution his rivals have struggled to understand, but the level of dignity required for the office and the sort of people they are most likely to encounter there. There are monthly tea parties at the Áras for senior citizens and the nature of the President’s weekday diary means they are most frequently in contact with retired folk enjoying the Third Age.

Physical energy

In a modern society where people in their 50s are being shuffled out of their careers prematurely, surely having a septuagenarian president is the ideal message for an ageing population? And why does a president need to have endless supplies of energy anyway? There’s a whole pile of staff and resources at their disposal. If a candidate happened to be in a wheelchair, would there be such overt references to their physical energy?

If anything, voters’ attitudes to the President’s age have turned out to be the most enlightening experience of this otherwise despairing campaign. Higgins’s popularity is highest among youngest voters. He is the first preference of a staggering 83 per cent of 18-35 year olds polled by Red C. Never let it be said that the youth do not respect their elders. It is an astonishing achievement that the President has struck such a chord with the youth, an accomplishment that went virtually unnoticed during his first term.

This is down to how he was quietly speaking the language of the young in his first seven years. He’s been doing so long before such social change became popular. For example, he spoke passionately at a Foróige Youth conference in 2012 about “the appalling, destructive reality of homophobia” in Ireland. This was a full three years before marriage equality. While many of his rivals were sitting out that period, the President chimed with matters on the ground and still kept within the constraints of his office.

There could not be any clearer indication that Ireland in 2018 is a place where age is no barrier to anything

Active duty

Given the attention on his pension entitlements, it has become even more obvious that it would be the easier option for the 77 year old to retire and enjoy the fruits of lump sums and after-service payments at this hour of his life. Instead, he’s choosing seven more years of public service that will bring him into active duty in his 80s. If that doesn’t inspire confidence among older generations that they can still contribute at a senior age, then nothing will.

Like so much in this campaign, President Higgins’s rivals got it wrong by trying to make the age euphemism “energy” an issue. If anything, Peter Casey’s offensive views make him sound like he was born before the last century. The only skeletons we’ve seen are the ones that fell spectacularly out of hapless Gavin Duffy’s poorly locked closet. Liadh Ni Riada must’ve been born yesterday for all she seems to know about Sinn Féin’s history prior to 1998.

In 2015, the people voted by a three-to-one margin not to reduce the minimum age for a president below 35. Next week, we’re on course to deliver the biggest ever vote for any election candidate in the history of the State to a 77-year-old man. This, in a country with the youngest population in Europe. There could not be any clearer indication that Ireland in 2018 is a place where age is no barrier to anything, up to and including serving in our highest office.

  • Oliver Callan is a writer and satirist
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