When it comes to choosing who I will vote for this Friday, I considered what I expect out of an Irish President. There are three things to consider.
The first, and probably most important in reality, is the ceremonial aspect of the job, by which I mean the visits to other countries, the photo-ops, the greetings, the baby kissing and so have you. The President is the only official in this country elected by the entirety of the electorate. They are the singular representation of the state for the entirety of their term. When people think Ireland, they will be one of the people that pops into their heads. That’s an important responsibility, no matter what some Journal commenters say. You want someone who can represent the state in such a fashion, and not be an abject embarrassment.
Then there is the actual constitutional role, the dismissing of a Dail, the power of pardon, the referral of legislation to the Supreme Court. You want someone smart enough to do this, preferably with a legal or legislative background of some kind, or at least some indication that they have the nuanced intelligence for the task.
And lastly, there is character which I would describe as “everything else”. Connected to ceremonial, this a judgement on the person themselves and what they represent: their politics, their past actions, their triumphs, their mistakes, whether or not they deserve, on their own merits, a seven year stay in a mansion, a very large salary and an almost guaranteed high approval rating.
Imagine a candidate in your head that reaches the required level on all three of these counts. One with the required gravitas and poise to be a ceremonial representation of the state, with the experience and wisdom to fulfill the constitutional role and with the right kind of character that deserves to be called First Citizen. And now understand that I don’t consider any of the six candidates presented to me to reach that level. Let’s take them one at a time.
Peter Casey’s campaign has been one that has exhibited no sense that the man at the centre of it is anything put a Trump imitator, who would not represent Ireland well on the international stage. He has not outlined or in any way demonstrated that he has the requisite knowledge to fulfill the constitutional role, and in terms of character, well, Casey is a man happy to take swipes at the disadvantaged, to invent criticisms when he can’t come up with any real ones and stated less than a week before the vote that he couldn’t decide if he wanted to still run. No thanks.
Gavin Duffy has had an empty campaign for an empty candidate. Perhaps he could fulfill that ceremonial role alright, though his claims that he can have an impact on Brexit are laughable. Like Casey, there is no indication that he stands above the others when it comes to the constitution. But in terms of character, Duffy falls down again, because he doesn’t appear to have one, just one bland slogan and motivational buzzword after another.
Senator Joan Freeman could well fulfill the ceremonial aspects, and she at least has some practical experience as a legislator when it comes to the constitution. But her character is mixed: some excellent work on mental health, but some very questionable choices and statements, not least her public belief that a visit to Knock cured her eczema, or, yes, the Des Walsh loan, given to her by a man at the heart of a very dodgy American company, accused of being a pyramid scheme by any other name. And we cannot discount her being on the wrong side of history very recently regards the 8th amendment.
Sean Gallagher, whom I described as yesterday’s man during the campaign, really should not be here. The way 2011 fell out was bad, but he hasn’t responded properly. He was anonymous for seven years, hardly indicating someone who can perform the ceremonial duties properly. Like the other dragons he falls behind on constitutional matters. And in terms of character, well, Gallagher’s speeches and pronouncements during this campaign indicate someone who a mind for (bad) poetry and not for high public office. Everything about the way he has conducted himself in the last while says he is a man who feels entitled to be a frontrunner, and isn’t willing to do the actual work to earn that position.
President Michael D. Higgins, well, I suppose he has performed the ceremonial duties fine, though not quite as spectacularly well as some people like to think (the “twee” sentiment attached to him by the public, and held as a positive, needs to be put to bed really). I can’t fault him on the use of the constitutional powers and I’m sure he would use them suitably in the next seven years if elected. But in terms of character, I have some issues with Higgins. The blind refusal to publish expenses, the staff turnover reports, the praising eulogy for Castro, the breaking of salary caps for advisers, the volte-face on the one term commitment and finally, his disgraceful refusal to show up for debates during this campaign when doing nothing else, there is plenty here to indicate that Higgins is a man who, at best, has an overly-high opinion of himself and his position, and at worst is a politicking elitist with not enough regard for accountability and public discourse. Casey’s bullishness has managed to obfuscate the fact that Higgins has failed to give satisfactory (or given numerous unsatisfactory) answers to uncomfortable questions.
Liath Ni Riada, MEP, isn’t quite the typical Sinn Fein candidate. The poppy thing shows that. I think she would do the ceremonial stuff just fine, though I would retain some reservations that she may, misunderstanding the role, go a bit too far with the “holding the government to account” stuff. Constitutionally, she’s an MEP and if she can handle that she should be able to handle the powers. She is pretty much the only candidate to actually try and talk about some of the powers outside of the default positions. But her never ending refrain about addressing the Oireachtas betrays either a surprising ignorance or a unneeded populism. Character wise, well, I still can’t move past the vaccine issue, where she appeared to be trying to be seen as both pro and anti-vax at the same time, and like so many Sinn Feiners, it’s all swipes and no substance when it comes to the government we have. Other than that, I genuinely feel like Ni Riada isn’t interested in this position, and has a mind on a future run for the Dail (or maybe the Aras in seven years?).
So where does that leave us? I did consider spoiling my vote, writing “RON” or something, such is my general lack of enthusiasm for any of these six choice. But I couldn’t bring myself to do that in the end. I feel a compulsion to state a preference, something our voting system has as its primary aim and so, after a lengthy period of thinking on it, I have come to a decision.
I will be voting for Michael D. Higgins as my #1 preference on Friday, and I suppose I think you do too. It was between him, Freeman and Ni Riada, and it was close. But Freeman is a candidate who has demonstrated some poor judgement in the past, enough that I felt uncomfortable voting for her, and I’m simply not on-board with the Sinn Fein platform of Ni Riada, not enough to put her at the top of the pile. The dragons shouldn’t be in this race. That leaves Higgins.
Yes, his attitude towards the Presidential expenses is shocking. Yes his absence from some debates is a terrible indictment. Yes, the Castro thing was ill-thought, yes this whole “jet to Belfast” story, where Higgins’ account of what happened changed, is eye-raising, yes there are a lot of smallish things that make you question if Higgins is as saintly as large sections of the population like to think he is. But Higgins remains, as he was in 2011, the best of a bad lot.
His liberal progressive credentials are unchallengable and he will project that image as our head of state, a suitable thing in the wake of SSM and 8th Amendment votes. He has the background as a legislator to be a trustworthy guardian of the constitution (enough that he did make an unpopular but correct decision, among some circles, to not refer the Water Charges bill). And there may be some flaws in character, but I could describe Higgins, generally, as harmless, someone who is unlikely to truly disgrace himself, and by extension the country, during his time in office. And so, he rises, just, above the others.
We don’t get a Trudeau, a Macron or an Obama. We don’t get a Robinson, not this time around. We don’t get the vibrant candidate we deserve, the kind of person who genuinely inspires a vote in their favor. Instead, we get, well, more of the same.
Ni Riada will get my #2, then Freeman, Gallagher, Duffy and finally, since he has decided it is worth staying in the race after all, Casey. And Higgins will beat the lot, by a rather large margin when it comes to it, the only question being who will have enough to grab second. Perhaps in seven years we will get candidates and a contest that are more worthy of our attention and the office. Until then, we get Higgins.