#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 18°C Wednesday 6 July 2022

'I'm not playing games - this is about winning the presidency': Craughwell expecting to secure backing for Áras run

The independent senator’s tilt at the presidency isn’t a gesture, he insists.

Seanad By-Election Count Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

INDEPENDENT SENATOR GERARD Craughwell has insisted he plans to contest the presidential election next year – whether Michael D Higgins decides to run for a second term or not.

The former teaching union boss, who was first elected to the Seanad in 2014, said back in August that he would throw his hat the ring because he didn’t believe Higgins should be allowed a second term in office without the country going to the polls.

In an interview with TheJournal.ie, Craughwell confirmed he planned to start shoring up nominations early in the new year – and that he planned to run for the Áras no matter how many candidates there were.

“People said I was throwing my hat into the ring as a token gesture – that I’d put my hat in the ring get a nomination, that then there’d have to be an election and the incumbent will be re-elected and I can sail off into the sunset having served democracy.

“That’s not the truth. The truth is once I put myself forward – and I have not sought a nomination as of yet but I will start to seek the nomination in the early part of next year -  I will not be playing games.

This is about winning the presidency once the nomination process starts.

8453 20th Anniversary NMI_90522979 Michael D: Second term? Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

A presidential election is due to be held in October next year. If no-one contests it election, the incumbent could be given a free run at a second term.

Michael D has said he’s not going to announce whether he’ll run again until September.

It’s thought Fine Gael, and possibly Fianna Fáil, may back him for a second term in order to spare themselves the expense of taking on such a popular figure.

Craughwell said there was a “certain cynicism” in the political establishment backing Higgins, asking:

Are they supporting him because he’d done a great job or are they supporting him because they know there’s a general election, European elections and local elections coming – and they don’t want to have to fund a presidential election?

During the 2011 vote, Higgins repeatedly pledged that he would only stand for a single seven-year term. Since being elected, however, he has refused to rule out the possibility of a second run.

Craughwell – and others – have argued that allowing him a free tilt to remain at the Áras would be bad for democracy.

“A person who was 18 on the day the President was inaugurated did not have the opportunity to vote for him. If we allow a second term uncontested that person will be 32 before they get an opportunity to elect a president,” the Senator argued.

We live in a democracy and the President is an elected role within that democracy – and if it is to be filled there must be an election.

Craughwell plans to write to party leaders in the new year asking them whether they intend to run a candidate, and if not, whether they will free up members to sign his nomination papers. He will also be contacting independents and members of smaller parties.

“The guys around Leinster House, party or non-party, by and large they’re democrats … Some of them would enjoy nominating somebody to enjoy the bloodsport that follows.”

He said he was “fairly confident” of getting the required 20 signatures from members of the Dáil or Seanad. If not, there’s always the local authority route: prospective presidential candidates need the backing of four councils to get on the ballot.

Craughwell said he thought the election should be widely contested and that councils,  keen to exert some power, would “line up to nominate people”.

90358551_90358551 2014's by-election win Source: Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

The former teacher, who capitalised on the fallout from the controversy around Fine Gael candidate John McNulty’s nomination to the Seanad to initially claim his seat, has been nothing but positive in his public comments about Higgins’ performance since he began talking about a possible presidential run.

It’s probably a sensible move. Higgins is still massively popular, and 64% of voters said they’d like him to remain in office in a recent poll.

In a campaign proper, however, Craughwell and any other candidates will inevitably be pressed to ramp up criticism of the former Labour TD.

“My own view is that he has done an excellent job it would be terrible to lose the second term,” Craughwell said at one point during our interview.

So why run? Why would you be a better president?

I wouldn’t be a better President than Michael D. I’d be a different President to Micheal D.

Higgins, a former arts minister and a published poet, brought a “unique cultural aspect” to the job and was the “right man for the right time”, Craughwell said, paying tribute to the President’s performance during the 1916 centenary events in particular.

‘I understand what it’s like…’

In terms of his own priorities for the role, he said he would try and focus on a “recommencement of reconciliation on the island”, and praised Mary McAleese’s bridge-building work as the peace process bedded down.

“The president also has a role where he or she can highlight or shine a light into some of the more difficult corners of our country,” Craughwell said.

One of the huge issues these days is homelessness… I lost my own home back in the 80s as a result of a bad business decision so I understand what it’s like to face into that.

Craughwell explained that he eventually did a deal with his bank, who took possession of the family home. His family was in an uncertain position for around a year up to that point – but Craughwell managed to find a good job and get back on his feet shortly after losing the house.

“It was horrendous. We had two kids, you know? But for the fact that I had a strong woman behind me… We just walked out the door.

But there was that period during the negotiations – living on the dole, living hand to mouth…

Career changes

He had been “lucky” throughout his life, Craughwell said. “Every time a door closed somewhere there was somebody opening a door and putting a hand out to lift me out from where I was.”

Before eventually moving into teaching in the 1990s, he had a varied career – including stints in both the British and Irish armies.

He had initially wanted to join the Irish Defence Forces in the late 1960s at the age of 15 – but his parents refused to sign his papers.

After moving to London, he instead joined the Second Battalion of the Royal Irish Rangers – serving for five years, before a series of threats to his family forced a rethink.

“In 1974 my parents were contacted by someone purporting to be from the IRA who told them that I would be shot.

That persisted right through the early part of 1974… I was going to be shot, I had been shot, I would be shot… Phone-calls at 2, 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning to my mother telling her I was dead.

After much discussion and an investigation by the army, he was allowed to discharge himself from the British Army, and enlisted almost straight away in the Irish one – where he rose to the rank of sergeant in subsequent years.

“The phone-calls stopped the day I came home.” It was never established who had been behind them.

#Open journalism No news is bad news Support The Journal

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support us now

Craughwell went into some detail on the rest of his career trajectory – but, in summary, he went back to college, earning qualifications in economics and computing as he began his career in teaching in the 1990s, and worked in Dun Laoghaire Senior College until a few years ago.

After leading the TUI between 2012 and 2014, he decided to run for the Seanad that October. Backing from Sinn Féin got him over the line against the embattled John McNulty after Sinn Féin’s own candidate was eliminated.

90239837_90239837 Martin McGuinness congratulates Michael D Higgins at the 2011 count. Source: RollingNews.ie

Looking ahead to next year’s likely contest, all candidates will inevitably face questions about the role of the President (or whether we even need one at all) and the costs associated with the post.

Michael D Higgins has declined any salary increases in recent years and has also handed his Dáil pensions back to the State.

But is the presidency still too costly? And do we need someone in the Áras full-time – on a seven-year term?

“I think it’s a debate that needs to be had…

“If you look at the constitutional position – the Dáil passes laws, the Seanad scrutinises those laws and has the ability to amend, change or stall the exuberance of government.

“The President’s role? The president is a meet and greet… As well as being a meet and greet they sign legislation and have a Council of State to refer legislation.

“Being totally honest about it in a country that is struggling to get back on its feet I would have to ask – maybe we should have a debate about the role of the presidency? Maybe we should have a debate about whether it’s a full-time post or an honorary post?

I must fight it is on the basis of where it currently exists. But I think for a small little country like ours, it’s hard to justify the cost of the role – looking at what it has cost.

And would he take the full salary?

It’s not about the money, he says – pointing out that he was paid more as senior teacher, compared to when he arrived in the Seanad.

“Money is not the driver, it can’t be the driver. Look it – you have everything laid on… You have everything you could possibly need… I’m married. I have a wife. I have a dog. That’s all I really have to look after in the world – my children are well set up at this stage in their life.

I’m not going to criticise the current incumbent but I think the money we pay sometimes is way way out there.

While Craughwell has been the most overt in his ambition of any likely election candidate so far – other figures have also already expressed an interest in the role.

Roscommon-South Leitrim TD Micheal Fitzmaurice has said he would be open to running if no other independent candidate comes forward, while senator and Aer Arann founder Pádraig Ó Céidigh said he had been approached about running and wasn’t ruling himself out.

We can expect more potential nominees to dip a toe in the water in the coming months. Political parties and independents will also be put under pressure from interested candidates to declare their intentions.

As to when we might actually expect an announcement from Michael D?

“I think he’ll play it to the very last – or else he’ll come clean early in the year and say he’s running or he’s not running.

I think what he’ll probably do is see what emerges over the next couple of weeks and if he sees a serious contest coming then he’ll make up his mind on whether he wants to contest it or whether he wants to walk away.

Read: ‘Could you all just move to the left slightly?..’ Fixed grins and Cabinet divisions at the Áras

Read: Interview: ‘There is a great anger in the country’ – President Higgins

About the author:

Daragh Brophy

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel