Pat Leahy: Higgins may face a tougher test in the next presidential contest

President’s announcement that he will seek a second term opens up the bear pit

President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar attend the National Day of Commemoration ceremony at   Collins Barracks in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar attend the National Day of Commemoration ceremony at Collins Barracks in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

With exquisite timing for those of us facing the silly season bereft of real political news, the prospect of a presidential election shimmied into view this week.

President Michael D Higgins announced at last that he would stand again for a second term, though it has been the worst-kept secret in Irish politics (and that’s saying something) for months, and eminently guessable since last summer.

Various efforts are under way to locate a candidate to stand against him, as Sinn Féin and a group of Independents are doing. Other prospective candidates are looking for a way to secure a nomination, either through the 20 Oireachtas signatures required or through the votes of local authorities. People have already been ringing councillors.

Given the claims for a great sea-change in our politics made after the abortion referendum (treated with some scepticism hereabouts), it will be interesting to see if a “candidate of change” emerges from that constituency. There is some rustling in the undergrowth.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who are interested in real power and therefore don’t really care about the presidency, will stay out, their eyes firmly focused on the next general election.

National conversation

Mary Lou McDonald has talked about the opportunity of using the presidential election to have a “national conversation”; you’ll probably hear that old trope a few more times in the coming weeks. All guff, of course. A presidential election is not a national conversation about ourselves, who we are, who we were and who we want to be at all (and even if it were, can you imagine anything more tedious?). It’s a bear pit, the Hunger Games of politics, where candidates are flayed alive by the media and savaged by their opponents until most of them have been destroyed and one candidate is left standing.

Ask Adi Roche if she enjoyed the national conversation. Or Derek Nally, or Dana Rosemary Scallon. Or Mary Davis, or Gay Mitchell. Ask Seán Gallagher.

Ask David Norris. Poor Norris, a man who has done more for his fellow Irishmen and women than most people in politics – and did so at a time when it required great moral and physical courage – was left so bruised by the last national conversation that his natural ebullience and bonhomie turned to recrimination. As his outburst about the media in the Senate recently showed (“They lie and lie and lie again”) he still hasn’t quite got over it. What a terrible pity.

Higgins has that undefinable but essential advantage for any successful politician: people like him

So those worthies who are now clambering for a route to a nomination should ask themselves if they are really ready for it. A presidential election is the most searching and trying process in Irish politics. Precisely because the presidency is by legal definition and constitutional convention a policy-free zone, candidates do not bring their policies to the hustings, ready to be interpreted by the media and debated with their opponents on the campaign trail. They bring their personalities, their character and their record. It’s a good deal more uncomfortable having your character interrogated than your policies.

Candidates will be faced by a media which believes – rightly, in my view – that it is its role to perform that interrogation on behalf of voters. How they perform that role, of course, may well be a matter for debate. The unfortunate Norris believes that the media’s behaviour during the 2011 contest was a travesty, a national disgrace. And it is true that, as he often says, he has collected several defamation settlements from various media outlets (not this one).

But most journalists who worked on the campaign think they did a pretty good job screening candidates on behalf of the voters. They will seek to do so again. That is what awaits candidates in this election.

Including President Higgins. Especially President Higgins. If the media believes that it did a generally decent job the last time, there is a niggling feeling at the back of the hive mind that it might have given Higgins as easier ride than his rivals.

On the night of the infamous Frontline debate that torpedoed Seán Gallagher’s campaign, one of the tough questions Higgins was asked was: “Do you think you have made a mistake by being too presidential during this campaign?” The RTÉ review of the programme said it was a mistake not to put harder questions to him. I expect that President Higgins will get a tougher ride than Candidate Higgins did.

Popular

Nonetheless, the President starts with enormous advantages. He has demonstrated he can do the job to the satisfaction of the public. He is familiar to them; even RTÉ News was referring to him as “Michael D” last week. Published polls show he is very popular.

As Noel Whelan pointed out in The Irish Times Inside Politics podcast this week, quoting market research he had seen, people don’t just respect and admire Higgins, they are very fond of him. He has that undefinable but essential advantage for any successful politician: people like him.

Some candidates are very hard to beat. But the history of election tells us that very few of them are unbeatable.

He is old for the job. He is 77, and would be 84 when completing a second term. Very few people of that age can do such a demanding job, though he may be able to prove he can on the campaign trail. He will also have to describe what the purpose of a second term for him would be. Just carrying on as heretofore is a weak pitch.

At this stage a contest is likely rather than certain. The coming weeks will see prospective candidates consult and decide. So August will be busy for some in the political world. Thank goodness.

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