- 23 Oct 18
Whether at local level or on the world stage, Michael D. Higgins has done a powerful job as President of Ireland over the past seven years. Without a shadow of doubt, he is the one to take us through the next seven too…
The closing date for nominations for the presidency has ushered in a month of torture, as candidates campaign and the media strive to entrench their view of themselves as the chief auditors of our political system. But at least it brought the pre-show entertainment to a merciful close. The usual words we use to describe such shenanigans, like farce, pantomime or circus, are woefully inadequate to capture the sheer skin-crawlingness of what went on.
The problem stems from the fact that candidates can be nominated by county councils. This was first spotted as an avenue by Dana’s advisers in 2004. It has opened the way for just about anyone to have a go. On one level that’s a very good thing. The election can’t simply be stitched up by the elected legislators in Dáil Éireann. But it’s a bad thing too, as a procession of people with little or no grasp of what the President is supposed to do – nor of the extent and limits of her or his power – presented themselves to one county council after another. It was wojious stuff.
There was an exception, of course, in the form of Norma Burke, who performed, and we think that’s the right word, before Dublin City Council as presidential candidate and PR executive Bunty Twuntingdon McFluff. She suggested burning dead people for fossil fuels and turning the Áras into a hunting lodge and spa. She proposed a new reality television show called ‘In Your Áras’ and said she would use the post to create “powerful contacts” for her own personal gain.
Now, whether or not you regard her performance as the pinnacle of the farce or the pits, it sure shook things up, for 24 hours anyway. Councillors blew gaskets and called her a disgrace. She was unrepentant. It was, she told RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke, “performance as protest against the quality of candidates.”
She had to make it outrageous!
“Otherwise,” she said, “people might have taken me seriously. So many candidates are presenting bizarre ideas – someone genuinely wants to bring back hanging. If I didn’t make it outrageous, people may not have got it, they may have thought it was real. I covered serious issues... (but) I looked at the subjects through the lens of a grotesque character.”
RTÉ’s veteran political correspondent David Davin-Power agreed. Bunty had done “…us all a great service by highlighting the quality of the candidate... a lot of the candidates are runners and riders and quite a few loose horses… Some of the platforms they are running on are completely absurd… It’s self-promotion, people who have been successful in their own field and now feel they can branch out into politics… I salute Norma for highlighting what is in danger of descending into a farce.”
Four candidates survived that farce and made it to the ballot paper, joining President Michael D, who nominated himself, and Liadh Ní Riada, who is the Sinn Féin candidate. The loose horses are cleared from the track. Now we move, if the political media have their way, from pantomime farce to Hunger Games; that is, three weeks of media feeding frenzy. It is to be hoped that the focus will be on the role of the President – both in general and also in the context of what lies before us over the next five and more years.
The first of these covers the routine functions of the job. Some of these are obvious: attending and often speaking at key events, meeting visiting dignitaries, exercising a range of functions as set out in the Constitution and so on. In addition, there are myriad small and often hidden tasks that go into being President: quiet, close-quarter work that is of huge importance to those in attendance.
Listening to many of the candidates’ pitches for nomination, they repeatedly talked about notions that are simply not part of the President’s remit, nor anything like it.
The Presidency is above politics, and there are very real limitations as to what the holder can do about changing the nature of Irish society or politics; leading a conversation on national unity; addressing suicide, homelessness, housing or other major social problems. Any engagement in these areas must be done with great acuity and surefootedness.
The second theme – what lies before us over the next five and more years – is perhaps of deeper significance and requires even greater adroitness. It will include marking centenaries that will become darker and more troubling as they progress, encompassing the war of Independence and the civil war. Memories of these events are long and bitter, and their marking will require a steady hand, a deep understanding of history and a capacity to speak to these difficult and conflicting collective narratives.
Navigating this as President will be a real challenge. But we know that Michael D has already navigated the centenaries of 1913-1918 to great acclaim. He is the one candidate who is up to this crucial, complex task. And then there’s the intangible, the secret ingredient that makes a President unforgettable.
Michael D visited Vietnam just after Donald Trump was elected in the USA. A reception was planned for the city centre. One of the Hog’s family is a long-time resident there. He was told by a bemused Irish embassy official that young Irish had been coming out of the woodwork to register with the embassy, revealing that there were twice as many Irish as they thought in Vietnam, almost all young and agog that Michael D was coming to town. They filled the room, many in their county GAA colours and when the President was finished speaking they raised the roof.
Maybe the contrast with the buffoon Trump was a factor. But the overriding sensation was of deep affection, respect, even devotion, as though to say: our President is a man of the earth and the sky, a lover of football (indeed all sports), and of the arts, a man of political action, a thinker, a poet and a philosopher.
Other candidates have been asked what would they say if they met Donald Trump. But Boris Johnson might be a more likely encounter and we certainly know how Michael D would handle that because it has already happened, when Johnson was Mayor of London, as described by Eamon Gilmore in his book.
Boris was already in the forecourt of the Mayor’s building, gladhanding and entertaining the public, when we arrived. He invited the President to join him and he then invited a small group of us, including the President, myself and Ambassador Mulhall, whom he knew, to join him for a cup of tea in his private office.
‘Mr President, would you like a muffin with your tea?’, he enquired.
The President declined.
‘Mr President, I hear you are a poet.’
‘Yes mayor, I have written some poems. And I understand you are a classical scholar?’
‘I am indeed. Tell me, Mr President, who is your favourite Greek poet?’
The President replied and with that Johnson fired off in ancient Greek a line from one of the poems. The President replied with the second line. Johnson with the third, and so on, as if in an intellectual duel, until eventually Johnson was quiet – though I was not clear if this was out of politeness, in defeat, or just because the poem ended at that point.
In a similar vein, President Higgins was able to converse in Spanish with Pope Francis, on his recent Irish visit. Looked at individually, these might seem like small things. But add them up and they are not. Michael D. Higgins has been President for seven years and he has conducted himself with great dignity throughout. And he has represented Ireland brilliantly both at local events across the country, and on the world stage.
We already know that one of the candidates can do the job superbly and where required with extraordinary grace and aplomb. Why even contemplate looking elsewhere? We’ll be giving Michael D our No.1.