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Larry Donnelly: Michael D Higgins seems virtually unbeatable - so how will the other candidates try to win?

What strategies and tactics can we expect from the candidates for the presidential race, asks Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

AND THEN THERE were six. On 26 October, the electorate will choose from the incumbent Michael D Higgins; Pieta House founder Senator Joan Freeman; businessmen Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy and Seán Gallagher; and Sinn Féin standard bearer Liadh Ní Riada MEP in the race to be Ireland’s next president. 

Interestingly, city and county councils played a crucial role in engineering the field while the Oireachtas, aside from the backing Ní Riada obtained from her party colleagues, was mute.

The council meetings, where four of the above individuals secured their access to the ballot, were derided by political watchers for the unusual and at times farcical pitches made to councillors by some of the long-shot aspirants who ultimately did not succeed in their efforts. Moreover, some councillors did not cover themselves in glory during the process. That said, the meetings were still an important exercise in democracy – they reaffirmed the right of every citizen over 35 to seek this high office.

The contours have now been defined and things are well and truly under way. So what should onlookers expect? The answer to that question, to a large extent, is dependent upon the strategies and tactics adopted by the six who are standing and their respective advisers.

The likely approach by the candidates

Liadh Ní Riada’s long anticipated entry to the race has been dented somewhat by a cautious approach to media interactions. The perceived wisdom is that Ní Riada is not really in it to win it. Instead, her candidacy is purposed to draw a line under the past, to showcase a changed entity and to grow Sinn Féin’s base.

The difficulty, though, will be how to accomplish these objectives in the context of this campaign. Put simply, running hard against a popular president who is also of the left risks alienating many of the voters Sinn Féin desperately wants respect and consideration from in the next general election. Yet running a ‘safe’ campaign is similarly fraught with potential peril. It won’t necessarily excite the party’s core, traditional, republican adherents. Additionally, and in light of the pockets of support that other candidates enjoy in ordinarily fertile border counties, being bland could produce an embarrassing showing.

Joan Freeman is widely and rightly recognised for her advocacy on behalf of people in suicidal distress. She has pledged to promote well-being and undertake related initiatives if elected. These plans will be received warmly; but Freeman is also closely associated with conservativism on social issues and this will not benefit her in the Ireland of 2018.

Commentators who are not typically subscribers to conspiracy theories have speculated out loud whether Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy and Seán Gallagher – each having appeared on the popular Dragons’ Den television programme – are in cahoots. Whether they are or not, their backgrounds in business inform their platforms, provide them with ample financial resources and will have some bearing on the events ahead. Each occupies a spot on the vague centre-right ideologically.

Peter Casey, who has lived outside the country in recent years, will not find it easy to gain traction. It is likely that the biggest sparks in this contest, if there are any, will come from Messrs Duffy and Gallagher. As the latter knows all too well, televised debates will be significant.

The former, a media trainer, will be banking on a strong performance in these. Notwithstanding some decidedly shaky outings after declaring that he was in the race, Gavin Duffy’s team must think that he is the one with the best chance of defeating, or at least rattling, the incumbent in front of a broad swathe of voters. If he presents capably and articulates a meaningful alternative vision for his presidency, he could emerge as the number one challenger.

At this stage, however, as a consequence of his second place finish in 2011, most eyes are on Seán Gallagher. While much has been made of his implosion as a result of the infamous Frontline debate seven years ago, scant attention has ever been paid to the unprecedented grouping of unexpected political bedfellows he assembled behind him for a time. 

Plenty of the then-downcast Fianna Fáil faithful were with Gallagher, but so were lots of professional men and women, including the Celtic Tiger-era entrepreneurial class who have little affection for politics and politicians generally and were outraged when the economy collapsed – with their negativity directed in particular at Fianna Fáil! Managing to pull this unique coalition together was an extraordinary feat. Yet the dynamics have shifted substantially since and the conditions are not conducive to history repeating itself.

Can they beat Michael D Higgins? 

Given that they can be under no illusions as to how tough it will be to unseat Michael D Higgins, one can’t help but have the feeling that Duffy and Gallagher, either intentionally or unintentionally aided and abetted by Casey, will go on the offensive and could have a proverbial trick up their sleeve. Whether it relates to a reticence to be completely transparent with respect to expenses incurred by the president’s office, questions about his age, his reneging on a promise to serve only one term or something else, it is near impossible to imagine that one or more of his opponents will not go on the attack.

Regardless, President Higgins appears to welcome the battle and the cut and thrust of what will be his last hurrah. His persona as a public intellectual and champion of human rights around the globe belies the reality that he is a steely political operator who literally spent decades embroiled in highly contentious fights for his electoral survival in Galway. He won many more than he lost. Despite the constraints of his current office, he will seek re-election vigorously and defend his record zealously.

When asked by Pat Kenny on a Newstalk broadcast after a late night in New Ross at the Kennedy Summer School about the trajectory of the looming presidential election campaign, I responded candidly that Michael D Higgins is virtually unbeatable. Almost immediately thereafter, mindful of how unpredictable the coming weeks could prove to be, I wondered if that assessment was overly forthright and quite foolhardy.

On further deeper reflection however, I cannot reach a different conclusion. A chain of events that would precipitate another result just seems too implausible. But then again, that’s why we have campaigns and elections. And the surprises they often hold in store ensure that so many of us remain perpetually enthralled by politics.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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