Michael D, the Government candidate: entitlement and #aras11.

This evening saw the latest in the seemingly endless set-piece ‘debates’ between the Presidential candidates. And it showed up the first significant flaw in the campaign of Michael D Higgins, who has, by and large, been alone in being given a free run in the media thus far.

Tonight’s debate was chaired by Matt Cooper and broadcast live on Today FM (you can catch up on it by listening back to The Last Word from today on here). The clamour for US-style debates in Irish and British electoral campaigns began a few years ago but its applicability to a seven-handed ‘debate’ is clearly questionable. Having now been on the Late Late Show, plus Vincent Browne’s programme (on TV3) the most manageable tactic that appears to be being adapted is to allow the candidates to simply take turns to answer a series of questions with little, if any, direct engagement between them. Barely a format for debate, it mainly functions as an opportunity for set-piece recitation and theatrics. Tomorrow, RTÉ’s PrimeTime seems likely to squeeze any remaining life out of this particular format.

In that last respect, even with over a fortnight to go the media, and public interest in it, may have peaked. Because of that, the search for relevance could well shift the focus onto the candidate’s positions on the more immediate political and economic problems facing the state. A rambling front page piece in the Sunday Independent suggested that the coalition partners now have a general agreement to support Labour’s Michael D Higgins as the official government candidate (at the obvious expense of Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell).

The extent to which Michael D has received the soft focus treatment includes literally having his stature enhanced by allowing him to stand on a box for that TV3 debate. Similarly, he attended around half of the live radio debate, then departed for another function (there is also a liveblog of the debate on The Journal). While all of the candidates would arguably claim their time would be better spent at more deserving events elsewhere, Higgins’ actions may well be spun as his trivialisation of the Presidential campaign, or, more damagingly, evidence of an emerging sense of entitlement (heightened by the Labour Party’s refusal to allow him to stand against McAleese back in 2004). As the public debate moves onto the more pressing current issues, Higgins may also be forced to defend the positions of the government which is supporting him.

The image of an ageing male politician, appearing to be rewarded with the Presidency as the anointed choice of the political mainstream would seemingly hark back to the age before Mary Robinson’s mould-breaking Presidency. There would be a deep irony in that, of which Higgins himself would be acutely aware: Labour have become Fianna Fáil.

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  • ben_w

    Have you considered that maybe Michael D is being given a “free ride” is because he hasn’t exhibited any the failings, errors of judgement, or utterly tainted histories that the other six have? Maybe he’s actually winning people’s support on some sort of merit? For instance, if the “political mainstream” is anointing anyone, wouldn’t it be the candidate of the dominant party who has the endorsement of a popular Taoiseach? No?

  • Jimmy Sands

    You’re wrong about the free ride. The Indo led with the scandal almost nobody is calling “standingonaboxgate” several days ago. Of course whether it failure to get traction is due to establishment conspiracy or the fact that it’s a bloody stupid stupid story, the public will decide.

    “Labour have become Fianna Fáil.”

    Don’t be silly I think we all know who wants to be Fianna Fail when they grow up now don’t we?

  • Rory Carr

    Have you considered, Ben W, that Michael D “hasn’t [yet] exhibited any … failings[or] errors of judgement ” precisely because of the “free run” he has so far been given?

    It remains to be seen how well he squares up to the pressure of attempting to defend this government’s performance to date.

    Standing on a box is unlikely to help and indeed is more likely to make his discomfiture all the more obvious.

  • Alias

    That’s all rather trite criticism of Michael D Higgins (short man on a shoebox, arrogant and presumtious, Fianna Fail wannabe) that has more to do with undeclared partisan propaganda than genuine analysis.

  • ben_w

    Rory, Michael D. Higgins has had a long public life. Plenty of time under media scrutiny has passed. Is there some impropriety or dishonour ins his career that you’d like there to be more scrutiny of? What is it that he’s getting a “free ride” on? Him being short, by the way, is not a criticism, but if that’s the best his sneering detractors can do then that says a lot for him, I’d say.

  • Jimmy Sands

    It remains to be seen how well he squares up to the pressure of attempting to defend this government’s performance to date. “

    As this is only going to happen in your imagination you must let us know how he gets on.

  • Mick Fealty

    Nice piece again John, with some keen observations. Not least about the media’s waning interest in the whole thing. Apart from Martin’s confrontation with the soldiers son, there was nothing in the Times yesterday.

    I’m afraid I agree with Ben and others. Michael D is a return to the traditional profile for the office. And critically, Geraldine Kennedy and Olivia O’Leary on TWIP got it right when they said Labours tactic was to keep him ‘zipped’.

    What he does say he’s keeping short, politically inert and playing for laughs. He can do that because the electorate already knows him, respects him and he has an uncomplicated past.

    It’s also the kind of performance that best fits the character of the office. I still think Cox would have given him a better run for his money. But forbearing some unseen banana skin, he looks like a winner.

    Not sure what the media’s been missing?

  • aquifer

    Michael is demonstrating that entitlement does not flow out of the barrel of a gun.

  • Henry94

    The only think that could realistically disrupt the Higgins stroll to the park is continued momentum for Sean Gallagher. I would not be surprised if the next set of polls showed just that.

  • John Ó Néill

    I’m not sure if the media are missing much, but that does have to be set against an absence of any close-marking to date. While each candidate’s past is obviously one side of the electoral equation, they also have to be measured against what they might achieve over the next seven years. Keeping him ‘zipped’ and some of the other handling imply that his team are not confident that he will stand up to some media pressures, or he will not play so well with the public if he is given free rein.

    The issue with the box is trivial, no doubt, but shouldn’t have been facilitated as the public should at least be presented with the candidates as they will have to endure them after the election. It may be superficial to consider the physical image the candidates project but you’d have to ask Michael D’s team why it was so important.

  • Rory Carr

    My “rather trite criticism” of Higgins, as Alias mistakenly puts it, was neither trite nor even indeed a criticism.

    All my post does in fact is to ponder how well he might stand up to any media questioning on the government’s record given the soft ride he has had to date. Given that his treatment by the media so far is verymuch the thrust of the original post I considered myself to be upon safe ground.

    Jimmy Sands isn’t concerned – he believes the press will remain compliant.

    Ben W insists rather futiley, that, “being short… is not a criticism. He should tell that to Higgins’s support team who seem to think it is. Me? I am not bothered. Napoleon and all that.

    But best of all is Alias – a stout defender of Michael D.and opponent of “undeclared partisan propaganda” – who’d’a’ thought it?

  • Mick Fealty

    John,

    What scale or manner of things do think can be achieved with the Office of President? Henry and I have discussed what SF could do with it as an Oppositionalist President (if Martin were so minded).

    Joe Higgins has pointed out over and over that they can’t really talk about what they can do with it, because the office gives them nothing but an important but highly circumscribed constitutional role, status and some limited patronage for what are essentially (even if cross border in nature) social causes.

    His/her executive functions are limited to Head of State ascent to constitutionally sound law. I don’t know much about Michael D, but I do know he knows his parliamentary law and protocols from A to Z and back again.

    Henry,

    Indeed.

  • Taoiseach

    He’s an atheistic, pro-choice Maoist who’ll have to lie to take the oath of office.

  • John Ó Néill

    Mick – as far as we have learned over the last few terms the Presidency is hugely limited but is largely about mood and lighting rather than sound. Much of it seems to be work that is done behind the scenes rather than in the foreground. Constitutional intervention by the President doesn’t happen (most people are challenged to remember a single instance where it has really arisen). You know, as well as anyone else, that a strong element of it is image projection and, internationally, how the winning candidate will play out on that stage. All of the candidates need to be measured for that part of the role.

  • Mick Fealty

    Very nice metaphor. I’d get that one up and tagged in ‘lights’ before some crafty bugger in the MSM or politics nicks it on you!!

    I think it was Feismother who brought up O’Dalaigh’s stand off with the Coalition’s defence minister, (which subsequently appeared as one of Martin’s talking points shortly afterwards).

    But I don’t substantially disagree with you.

  • Fortlands

    Has anyone asked Michael D about swearing an oath to a God he doesn’t believe in? And what are his views on the past of the leader of his party? That might be interesting. No doubt Miriam will raise both tonight…

  • Mick Fealty

    FL,

    Well, he heard it here first. So no excuses for not coming up with a plausible answer on the God thing!

    His leader? Has anyone else’s party leader been the subject of scrutiny of their candidacy?

  • Jimmy Sands

    All my post does in fact is to ponder how well he might stand up to any media questioning on the government’s record given the soft ride he has had to date.

    He hasn’t been in government, or even on the government benches for 14 years so which government do you think he should be asked about?

  • Jimmy, use the angle brackets instead of the [, ] ones to achieve italicised script.

  • John, Micheal D stands tall (when not) amongst the other candidates – especially if the camera is in the right position – and the ageists are hammered 🙂

  • Rory Carr

    Why, Jimmy I am surprised you asked. The government in which his party is a coalition partner of course. The government for whose policies his party shares joint responsibility. That government. That party.

    Fortlands,

    I would leave the oath swearing out of it if I were you. Any professed Christian who swears an oath does so against the explicit command of their religion’s founder, in what is known as The Sermon on the Mount, never to so do:

    The Gospel According to St Matthew. Ch.5 .Verses 33 – 37:

    ’33. Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.”
    34. But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
    35. or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
    36. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
    37. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’

    See ! That swearing business is the very devil’s work. How do I know? Jesus told me so.

    Atheists of course are hardly bothered.

  • Jimmy Sands

    The government in which his party is a coalition partner of course.

    Why wouldn’t you ask them?

  • Rory Carr

    Ask whom? What? When? Where?

  • Jimmy Sands

    I would have thought that holding the government to account would involve asking the government, not someone who was briefly a minister in the 90s. Perhaps you think it’s like Marty, that he’s lying when he claims to have left government in 1997?

  • Scáth Shéamais

    Tomorrow, RTÉ’s PrimeTime seems likely to squeeze any remaining life out of this particular format.

    I’m not sure, TG4 is presenting a debate next Tuesday and when you consider that Michael D Higgins is the only Irish speaker in the race, it looks like it could make for some unmissable trainwreck TV.