I’ve never understood why Irish presidential elections are not fixed events. Elections due every seven years are suspended if the incumbent wants to make it 14. The current President promised he’d trigger one by leaving after one term.
But Ireland’s worst kept secret is now out there. Michael D Higgins is going to run again. Sinn Fein’s confirmation that it will field a candidate means a game is certainly on, and there is likely to be at least one independent running too.
The Fine Gael and Fianna Parliamentary parties have endorsed Higgins, but Opposition Leader Micheal Martin has said his councillors are free to nominate other candidates. Fine Gael is asking its councillors to back Higgins.
It doesn’t quite break convention. It happened once before when De Valera squeezed past Fine Gael’s Tom O’Higgins in 1966. It does raise a question of how an incumbent fights an election while maintaining the dignity of office.
DeV stepped back and left the field to O’Higgins and almost paid the price (he won by just 50.5% to 49.5%). On the RTE website, Dr Tomás Finn doesn’t believe Michael D will take the same approach.
And yet, as witnessed in 2011, in part because of the intense focus on the personal attributes of each candidate, Presidential elections can give rise to some of the dirtiest campaigns seen in Irish politics.
The other question is what will be about? In his Irish Times column, Newton Emerson makes a noble attempt at looking for a political pinchpoint for Sinn Fein and mostly finds pitfalls, not least the collapsed institutions at Stormont.
He does argue that an election could provide motivation to fix that situation (at whatever cost)..
One way through this would be to make a fresh powersharing offer to the DUP. With Stormont talks expected to resume in the autumn, perceptions of republican generosity would be well-timed for the presidential election.
However, the issues that need to be dealt with probably mitigate against running another northern candidate. One of the favourites, John Finucane certainly won’t be spared any tough questions about his own party’s treatment of victims.
What about Michael D’s record? The office itself is almost invisible from a day to day political point of view. And the party’s new President Mary Lou McDonald is on record as praising his handling of presidential business.
The party is likely to continue in the leadership’s recent groove, viz the promotion of attractive young women to public facing office, in this case in order to build a contrasting profile with the septuagenarian Higgins.
Before the Sinn Fein announcement, Ivan Yates noted in the Indo that the President’s long-expected change of mind has hit his poll rating…
Opinion polls reflect a softening of public support for Michael D to break his previous “one-term” promises. It’s declined from 75pc to 52pc over the past year. That was without the certainty of a contest. The appearance of credible, confirmed challengers will significantly change scenarios.
Or not, as the case may be. Two things are yet to be discovered. First, the identity of the candidate(s), and secondly, given the Irish Presidency is a deliberately weak office how can demonstrate that they could do better than Michael D?
Despite the old saying to the contrary in politics, not all publicity is good publicity. Nor does success trickle down from the Aras. Higgins was a Labour candidate in 2011, and yet in the local elections that followed in 2014 his party were trounced.
It’s good to have elections for elective offices, but it remains to be seen what this one will amount to.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty