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Sam Boal
aras race

Millenials for Michael D: Why young people are backing a Higgins presidency

We talked to students who support his bid for the presidency about why they intend on voting for him.

WITH THE PRESIDENTIAL campaign now begun in earnest, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Michael D Higgins is already a firm favourite among Ireland’s younger people.

Higgins, a septuagenarian poet who still calls the cinema “the pictures”, has become a silent, ceremonial figurehead to a generation of young, socially liberal activists. To many, he’s an icon of a better politics.

To many more, he’s Miggeldy – the cute elder statesman who still queues for ATMs. The nickname, for the uninitiated, comes from an incorrect spelling of Higgins’s name by a schoolchild. The name is now synonymous with the President, even if some find it demeaning.

The student view

Drop into any Freshers’ Week at an Irish college and you might spot Labour Youth activists hawking Higgins merchandise – badges, posters and more – to a receptive crowd.

Some of the young people spoke to about Higgins painted a portrait of a unique politician.

“A lot of people have a Michael D story”, Chair of Labour Youth Chloe Manahan told “We had so many people coming over to us. It’s almost like an inexplicable love for him. I would be hesitant to use the phrase ‘cult of personality’, but people just love him.”

So what is it about this softly-spoken man from Co Clare that seems to ignite young people’s enthusiasm?

“He has been fighting to create the Ireland we want,” former Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union President Kevin Keane said. “He doesn’t just turn up every seven years… He genuinely seems to care about the people he represents.”

Certainly, Higgins’s political credentials map remarkably onto today’s political zeitgeist. He’s left-wing, socially liberal and vocally opposed the eighth amendment in the 1980s. 

For many young people, Higgins is a man out of step with his own political generation – closer to millennials than many modern politicians.

“A couple of months ago he was speaking at an event and he was talking about concepts like gender fluidity, which I think a lot of older politicians find quite inaccessible. But he’s very comfortable. He’s very fluent in how he talks about issues young people are concerned about,” said Manahan.

Political engagement

One website, run by Susan McGrady, sells Higgins merchandise alongside badges advocating abortion rights and LGBT issues. Higgins is very easy, she said, to promote in a “positive” way.

“The young people of Ireland are so much more politically engaged now than they were,” she said. The fact repealing the Eighth and marriage equality are issues that people see Higgins as privately supporting “makes him shine for them”, she said.

In recent years young people have flocked to support older politicians, many with left-leaning worldviews, such as UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and and US Senator Bernie Sanders.

Is the same thing happening here? Professor Gary Murphy of Dublin City University’s School of Law and Government is sceptical. “The presidency is not that important for young people’s lives,” he said. “I am not convinced it is a sign of some great socialist rejuvenation.”

“He comes across well to young people because he is like their cuddly grandfather,” he added. One important factor bolstering this might be that Higgins is the first president to come of age in culture saturated with viral images, where a well-taken photo can dominate a news cycle.

But Dr Theresa Reidy, an expert in Irish politics at University College Cork, suggested that current factors might not explain Higgins’s popularity.

“Nearly all presidents were quite popular as their terms were coming to an end. We have more data for recent decades and both [Mary] Robinson and [Mary] McAleese were enormously popular so it may be that there is something about the ceremonial nature of the position, than it is about intellectual and emotional leadership that contributes to the popularity of the incumbent.”

For instance, at the end of her term as President, Mary Robinson enjoyed 92% support in opinion polls and enjoyed some glowing media coverage as she bowed out in 1997. Similarly, Mary McAleese enjoyed high polling ratings at the end of her first term.

According to recent polling, Higgins could be set for a landslide. And some of that support seems to come from a remarkable cross-party popularity that defies his solidly left-wing politics. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil not fielding candidates has helped, but it’s still a rare sight to see young members of the two main parties going out to bat enthusiastically for a resoundingly left-wing politician.

Recent Trinity College Dublin graduate Clodagh Murray, a Fine Gael member, is passionate about the prospect of a second term for Higgins. He’s representative of a “changing Ireland”, she said. “It’s not a personality fandom. It’s more than that.”

While she doesn’t agree with all his views, she likes how “accessible” he has been as a head of state. “It’s to do with representing Ireland.”

Meme culture

The strange question remains, however – is Higgins’s popularity among young people tied to his political beliefs, or is it simply because he’s a diminutive, esoteric man with a love of dogs?

There is no getting around the fact that Higgins’s presidency might have been made for the meme culture that exists online. Photos of Higgins circulate online with regularity and there is a ready-made audience ready to coo over photos of him, his dogs and the now famous photo of his bare chest at a festival in Slane.

University College Dublin student Jade Wilson said that Higgins “is associated with meme culture”. But she also noted that “he’s been in politics for a long time with a pretty untarnished record”.

“Young people,” she said, “are not going to vote for him just because we saw a funny picture.”

Dominic McGrath
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