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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C
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Column 'There should be a presidential election and Michael D shouldn't run'

We live in an extraordinary moment for democratic government, where confidence in the honesty of political leaders is seemingly at an all time low, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

IT IS ONE of the oddities of the Irish political world that we can be ten months out from a scheduled presidential election and still be unsure if an election is even going to take place.

It is seven years since Michael D Higgins was elected President of Ireland. Recent polls suggest that a large majority of people want him to serve a second term. So far, Senator Gerard Craughwell is the only person to officially declare his intention to run for the presidency.

At this point, a second term for Higgins appears to be inevitable. But it shouldn’t be. There should be a presidential election in October, and Michael D Higgins should not take part in it.

I admire Higgins

I write this as someone who admires Higgins and thinks he has had a distinguished career in Irish politics. He was certainly my choice in 2011. I also believe he has done an excellent job.

Speaking as a historian, I felt his Easter Rising commemoration speech, in which he pointed out that “militant imperialism” has not been examined with the same intensity as nationalist violence, was an important challenge to a particular view of Ireland’s past that holds sway among certain sections of Irish academia and the media.

The reason I believe Higgins should not put himself forward for a second term is simple. Throughout his 2011 campaign, he indicated strongly that he would only serve a single term.

His age isn’t an issue

It is worth looking a little more closely at the context in which Higgins’ comments were made, as well as exactly what he said. In 2011, Michael D Higgins was seventy. Journalists regularly referred to his age and suggested that it might be a problem. If he served two terms, he would be eighty-four at the end of his presidency.

Given that every Irish president who has desired a second term has gotten it, and only one (Éamon de Valera) actually had to defeat an opponent to earn it, the prospect of Higgins serving as president in his eighties would be quite high if he won in 2011.

Whether that represented a problem is a different matter. The obligations of the Irish presidency are not comparable to, say, the American presidency in terms of the demands placed on the office holder. There is no reason to think that someone in their eighties could not carry out the duties required of them.

It is worth bearing in mind that Michael D Higgins would be the same age at the end of his second term as Éamon de Valera was at the start of his.

Not a hard commitment

Nevertheless, Higgins dealt with questions about his age by suggesting that the issue of having an octogenarian president would not arise as he would only serve one term. As he put it in one interview, “I think those seven years should be enough even for me.”

Of course, one does not need to be a legal expert to see that this in fact was not a hard commitment to only serve one term, and that Higgins left himself considerable room to manoeuvre should he fancy putting his name forward for another seven years.

Indeed, after he had been elected, Higgins made it clear that he felt questions about his age were unfair. He said:

I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that there were times when the campaign was quite ageist. This has nothing to do with me, because I do things that lots of people don’t even dream of doing – that’s the kind of restless person I am. But I felt it was wrong. I’ve said to people when I’m quizzed, ‘some of Picasso’s greatest work was produced by him between the ages of 72 and 90.’

Since his election to Áras an Uachtaráin, Michael D Higgins has refused to rule out a second term in office, and even now, ten months out from the scheduled election, there has been no clarity on his intentions. Some people have felt this ambiguity is a deliberate effort to deny potentially serious challengers time to prepare a campaign, thereby making his second term a fait accompli.

The common good over self-interest

When Higgins’ comments about only serving one term are raised now, many of his supporters say “isn’t he entitled to change his mind?” But if a politician substantially changes one of the campaign promises that got them elected in the first place, it should only be done for the common good, not to suit self-interest.

A better question might be whether a decision on the part of Higgins to run for a second term would actually represent a change of mind? With the benefit of hindsight, one might interpret Higgins’ comments in 2011 as simply a ploy to quiet questions about his age, questions he felt were unfair.

His refusal since to say whether he will stand again may be evidence that he has always intended to serve a second term if his health allowed it.

I agree that suggestions in 2011 that Higgins would be too old to serve two terms were ridiculous. But if that is what he believed, then he should have been upfront about the matter, rather than hinting strongly that he would not seek a second term.

Confidence in politicians

We live in an extraordinary moment for democratic government, where confidence in the honesty of political leaders is seemingly at an all time low. By announcing that he will not stand for a second term, Michael D Higgins can offer the public some hope that when a politician makes a promise, they intend following through on it.

A second Higgins term would not be the rock this republic perishes on. But it would deepen the impression that the words of our political leaders cannot be taken at face value, which is the very thing that has caused a crisis in western democracy in the first place.

Caoimhín De Barra is Assistant Professor for Irish History and Culture at Drew University, New Jersey.

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Caoimhín De Barra
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