Aras 18: Claire Byrne Live Debate

I have read some commentators say that this is among the worst political campaigns they have seen in Irish history, and while that may be a tad overblown as a sentiment, in truth it isn’t really that far off. The lacklustre nature of the challengers, an incumbent whose lead seems so commanding as to make the actual voting pointless, and debates that have, shall we say, failed to inspire, it all adds up. Ahead and after the debate on Claire Byrne Live (that aired Monday 15th October for those reading back), I wanted to offer a few more thoughts about the candidates. Again, on alphabetical order:

Peter Casey is a real sort of “hiding to nowhere” candidate, and I am ever more receptive to the conspiracy theory touted that he is a secret attack dog for other candidates. On the face of it, Casey seems to have something worth saying, about the diaspora especially, but it’s all hidden behind an outer wall of unusual hostility. On the radio debate on Saturday afternoon, Casey had some good points to make about Higgins’ time in the office, on topics like the use of a jet to fly to Belfast or the gradual reduction in Presidential appearances. But he can’t help but be nasty when he goes for the jugular, bringing Higgins’ age up in a manner that is, simply put, unpresidential. Going negative and mean does not get votes in these contests, especially when the target is someone as overtly popular as Higgins. Casey perhaps things he can channel a bit of Trump even if such a comparison would be anathema to him. That doesn’t fly in Ireland, not at this level.

Gavin Duffy is the Gay Mitchell of this election, insofar as his candidacy is something you almost struggle to remember. He’s just an empty shell of a candidate, with his platform amounting to little more than a plethora of bland slogans that seem better suited to a motivational seminar than an election for head of state. I have no kind of read on what kind of President Duffy wants to be, what he will represent or what he wants to do, just a big old nothing. Like Mitchell, he seems to be running in first gear since the moment the thing started, assured of a nomination but with no idea of how to go beyond that. I can’t think of anything notable or worthwhile that Duffy has said in this election, bar his repeated and laughable assertion that he can have any kind of meaningful impact on the Brexit outcome that would differentiate himself from others. That ain’t fooling many.

Senator Joan Freeman is the Mary Davis of this election, with her candidacy already looking sunk and the candidate sounding like she regrets even getting involved. Her constant mentioning of Pieta House has become a parrot call of irrelevancy, and on Saturday she was strangely ineffectual, happy to stay quiet for large stretches and giving odd answers when called upon directly, not least when she stated bluntly that she wasn’t qualified to answer a question on Presidential referrals to the Supreme Court. The Des Walsh loan controversy indicates someone with a serious lack of judgement, and she’s been unable to get beyond the idea of her being anything other than the mental health candidate. There isn’t anything wrong with staking a claim to an issue – everyone else has, bar Higgins really – but there is something very repetitive about Freeman’s. She shows decreasing amounts of energy, and she looks well beaten already.

There is, perhaps, no worse criticism I can lay at the feet of Sean Gallagher than the simple observation that he appears to be yesterday’s man. Still obviously holding on to some bitterness from the way 2011 fell out, his campaign has been one of Duffy-esque blandness and atrociously ill-considered messages, that sound like satirical attempts at poetry. There may be something to the idea that Gallagher feels entitled to the Presidency, or at least to a candidacy taken seriously without much effort, but he simply doesn’t. His lack of appearance over the last seven years, his patronising comments on issues like the Irish language, his efforts to put himself on a par with Higgins by refusing debates, it all speaks to a man with skewed self-perception. Desperate to appeal to everyone and terrified of offending anyone, Gallagher will end up a distant second if he’s lucky. Then we’ll probably never see him again.

President Michael D. Higgins is coasting along, and that’s all he really has to do. Every time Higgins is asked an awkward question – on Presidential expenses, on his decision to seek a second term, on that Castro eulogy, on staff turnover – he has failed to give a satisfactory answer, but it doesn’t seem to matter: more often than not, the person asking the question is easily painted as a bully, and the President deflects with an appropriate amount of waffle. This is far from Higgins’ first rodeo, and it shows. His huge lead means the others have to go after him in some fashion, and at times on Saturday it was almost like five on one. But all he had to do is take on that slightly wounded tone when responding, then morph into lecturer mode when actual issues of constitutionality come up. His decision to dodge debates is flat out disgraceful, but it isn’t bad strategy from an electoral stand point: he can just let the others destroy themselves, and stroll to a first count victory.

Last but not least is Liadh Ni Riada, MEP. There’s always been a sense that her candidacy is a publicity exercise for a political party with an eye on other elections, and it’s a fair point. Ni Riada is very good at sticking to the Sinn Fein line, and has cornered Irish unity as her “thing”. But, like every Sinn Fein candidate going, there is a serious lack of substance, like every time she takes the opportunity to have a swipe at the government and offer precious little in return. In terms of misunderstanding the powers of the President, Ni Riada takes the cake, with her attempts to come across as charmingly defiant looking more like annoyingly ignorant. Attempting to explain constitutional powers to President Higgins on Saturday was a remarkably poor move (I did like her answer on dismissing an Oireachtas though), and while she has been able to move past it in the last week, we cannot forget his unsatisfactory answer to the HPV vaccine queries, wherein she appears to be trying to have her cake and eat it too. Her poll numbers are disappointing for a party candidate, and this gambit may not work out for Sinn Fein as well as they had hoped.

After The Debate

Higgins did not appear – for no clear reason other than trying to gain political advantage – and Gallagher followed through with his position of refusing to appear if the President did not. “Contempt”, “disrespect”, “entitlement”, “indefensible” were all words used to describe the situation by other candidates, and they are all correct. When Casey started by criticising Higgins, Byrne cut him off quick enough, stating simply that they couldn’t talk about it if he wasn’t there. Which, of course, is the point. Not sure what Gallagher is up to by copying. RTE and Claire Byrne should also not be offering themselves as mouthpieces for any candidate not willing to show up to defend himself, regardless of what is being said. If he’s unhappy about Casey talking about his dogs, no matter how stupid it is, he can be there himself. Anyway, on each present candidate:

Casey: Went on the attack quick, and then was ignored for close to fifteen minutes by the moderator. His comments on gender equality came off rather patronising. His favourite part of the constitution: NATO? Sounded awfully arrogant when discussing his finances, and then he was interrupted by someone shouting from the crowd, apparently failed joke candidate Norma Burke. Closing statement largely the same as his RTE pitch.

Duffy: He’ll have a more effective Presidency apparently, but beyond saying words like “dynamic” a lot, he doesn’t seem to want to offer specifics. His favourite part of the constitution? He doesn’t have one. Nice namedrop of Sean T. O’Kelly’s visit to America. Wouldn’t wear a poppy on Armistice Day, which was brave to say with the room against him. Closing statement went after Higgins, and while that was due, it won’t help him. Seemed at pains to look Presidential, but not in any kind of convincing way.

Freeman: Real deflated at the start, but in a way that was sort of OK in comparison to some of the other candidates who seemed to want a fight to kick off at times. Her favourite part of the constitution: The Presidential Oath? Good points to make on financial imbalance between incumbents and challengers, though it doesn’t excuse her Herbalife connection. Responded well to Ni Riada’s very unbecoming swipe. Sick burn to President Higgins near the conclusion. A better closing statement than I expected too.

Ni Riada: Went back to the Saturday debate thing of addressing the Oireachtas, a topic she has latched onto but does not appear to understand fully. While others were tripping over themselves to namedrop people for their Council of State, she was refreshingly honest in saying she didn’t have any names yet. Her favourite part of the constitution: Neutrality? Actually somewhat courageous of her to state she would wear a poppy on Armistice Day, something that would enrage sections of her party. Came off bad when having a snipe at Freeman. Closing statement salvaged it a tad.

Not one of these four have a hope of unseating Higgins. I suppose I appreciated Freeman the most, despite her lack of enthusiasm at times, she grew into the debate and looked strong at the conclusion. However, it is fair to say that she wasn’t challenged too much. After her I would say Ni Riada, then Duffy and bringing up a very distant rear would be Casey.

The next debate is Wednesday, when President Higgins and Sean Gallagher will lower themselves to actually appearing before the people. Until then.

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