‘Ridiculous’ vote shows true value of democracy


‘Ridiculous’ vote shows true value of democracy

Michael D is unlikely to be evicted from the Aras – yet the €15m cost of the presidential election is worth paying, writes Kevin Doyle

ENCORE FOR THE PRESIDENT? Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina celebrate his 2011 presidential win with their children (from the left) Michael, Alice Mary, John and Daniel. Photo: AFP/Getty
ENCORE FOR THE PRESIDENT? Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina celebrate his 2011 presidential win with their children (from the left) Michael, Alice Mary, John and Daniel. Photo: AFP/Getty

Barring a change in the course of history, this day week Michael D Higgins will be sitting comfortably with his feet up in Aras an Uachtarain.

Inevitably there will be discussion on the Marian Finucane show about whether it was worth spending €15m on an election where there was only ever going to be one outcome.

Somebody will say it was a ridiculous waste of money when we have a housing and health crisis to deal with. Another panellist will argue that democracy demanded a day at the polls.

Much high-brow banter will follow before they move back to talking about Dragons and Travellers.

Meanwhile in the Aras and having secured a landslide victory, the President will be feeling pretty happy with himself.

But as he peruses the Sunday papers, the 77-year-old will reflect on how he was made to fight for his own job.

He will ponder the consequences of an election where the office of the presidency was dragged down to arguing over the price of teabags.

Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina will also speculate as to whether Peter Casey will leave them alone now or strive to be a “call it as it is” pundit on the media circuit.

And they’ll realise that a lot of things must be different in his second term.

There are many reasons why, bonkers and all as it is, we needed this election.

It is correct that the president should be above politics but that does not make him or her unanswerable to the public.

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Back in August, my colleague Philip Ryan revealed Mr Higgins’s first seven years in office cost the taxpayer far in excess of €55m.

He also uncovered how the Department of An Taoiseach had not carried out an internal audit of the Office of the President for at least six years, despite repeated commitments to do so.

The Aras initially ignored queries before eventually saying there was no audit because the former chairman was indisposed.

Mid-silly season the story got minimal traction. But when it became apparent that an election was on the way, the issue was pounced on by the Public Accounts Committee.

And when a hearing was held to establish the facts, it emerged the president was getting an annual allowance of €317,000 for which the public are not allowed to see any receipts.

Throughout the campaign, Mr Higgins has refused to produce details of what the money was spent on, other than to explain he holds a lot of garden parties.

The reluctance to provide a breakdown of costs left him open to accusations that the money is used to pay dog grooming bills for Brod and Sioda. Mr Higgins denies this is the case.

Ultimately he accepted more transparency is needed and, if re-elected, one of his first acts will be to make arrangements for the Aras accounts to be released.

Had Mr Higgins secured a second term without a contest, there is little chance he would have spontaneously decided to open the books.

It’s likely he will also think twice about staying in €3,000-a-night hotels or using the Government jet for a hop to Belfast.

We have learned over the campaign that the President had become cosseted in his big house.

By forcing him to campaign, the five other candidates made Mr Higgins prove that he has the energy and vision for another term.

At times the President has looked frustrated, even tetchy, at the line of attacks.

His campaign admitted as much when they sent out a message to supporters after the Virgin Media debate, saying the other candidates were “trying to round on him”.

Mr Higgins told me during the week that he made a decision “very early on that I would have a respectful relationship with all of the candidates”.

For the most part, he has lived up to that personal commitment – but the debate has been brought to his door.

It was Joan Freeman who said Mr Higgins is effectively “the Government candidate” who also has the backing of the main opposition party and others in Leinster House.

She has a point. The “establishment” decided they didn’t want an election and that’s never healthy.

Right now Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are conspiring on how to stall a general election until it suits both to go to the polls.

They decided a long time ago there was no point wasting upwards of €500,000 on challenging Mr Higgins.

The “consensus candidate” will probably win but the tough battle he has faced may give food for thought to the main parties.

They talk about the need for the centre to hold – but holding won’t necessarily be enough.

By refusing to come on to the pitch, the political parties left this contest open to reality TV stars and Sinn Fein.

That’s something journalists and voters, who so regularly speak in degrading terms about our politicians, should think about too.

Had a credible candidate from the main political parties emerged, they could have at least secured a solid second place. A last minute controversy could even see them nab the top job.

Another reason why this election is important was touched on by Mary Lou McDonald.

Although it hasn’t been fully achieved, she noted that we need “a national conversation about the future of our country”.

Ireland in 2018 feels like it is struggling to measure our new wealth against our old crises.

Unexpectedly that debate has segued into one about Travellers getting free homes in Tipperary.

We thought the place of Travellers in society was resolved when they were recognised as an ethnic minority last year.

But the reaction to Peter Casey’s comments that they are “basically camping in someone else’s land” and don’t pay their “fair share of taxes” has opened a Pandora’s box.

Anecdotally it seems many people have been suppressing their views with progressive public utterances. We may not be the open-minded, tolerant society we like to portray after all.

Two of the candidates – Liadh Ni Riada and Sean Gallagher – have used the campaign to question whether the island needs to start preparing for unity.

Others say they are moving too quickly against the backdrop of Brexit. But it’s a discussion worth having in the context of where and when this presidential term ends in 2025.

The public have also learned a little bit more about Bunreacht na hEireann over the past month.

We watched as candidates squirmed when asked about their favourite part of the Constitution.

And we tut-tutted as they were lectured by radio hosts about what the president can and can’t do.

Finally, there is the really basic argument that nobody should have to wait until they are in their 30s to vote for a president.

Michael D Higgins was elected in 2011 and without this campaign could have gone on to serve for 14 years.

There are dictators who have spent less time as head of State.

So, yes, this election has been somewhat ridiculous but it served to remind us of the potential of good ones.

Sunday Independent

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