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Will President Higgins seek a double instead of a single…?

26 Sep

This column on whether President Higgins will run for a second term comes from Sept 25th and first appeared online on Broadsheet.ie. 

imageTo have voted in just one presidential election you would need to be at least 24 years of age now. To have voted in at least two of them; you would now be 38, at minimum. If you voted in three presidential elections you are at least 45 and if you voted in four, then the very youngest of you will be 60 before the next one.

That, of course, is if there is a next one. Though I personally think there will.

If today’s Ireland Thinks/Irish Daily Mail poll is correct, and there is no real reason to assume it isn’t, then 76% of us would like President Higgins to continue on after his first term expires in late 2018.

That is fair enough. I, like most people, like our President. I think he is doing a good job and that he projects a positive image of Ireland as a caring, cultured and outward looking country.

I didn’t vote for him in 2011 (either first or second preference), but that does not matter. If the poll is correct then just under half of those just polled did not vote for him either.  As a candidate in the 2011 election, when we had a selection of people pick from, Michael D Higgins was the first-choice pick of just under 40% of voters.

So, it would be a bit of a stretch to read today’s poll as saying that he would automatically be the first-choice pick of 76% of voters, without knowing who those other potential candidates might be.

In the same vein, it is also a major stretch to interpret today’s result as saying that 76% of us believe that President Higgins should have a second term without an election.

That said, today’s poll will doubtless come as a bit of welcome news to those hoping that the President will run again. They were due some good news after the recent opinions pieces in the Sunday Business Post, Irish Examiner and the Sunday Times (Ireland) urging the President to think carefully about going for a second term and to keep good to his word, as given during the 2011 elections, and only serve a single seven-year term.

While there have been other pieces written along on the same lines over the past few years, including this from Brendan Morley in June 2016, these three particular pieces from Elaine Byrne, Alison O’Connor and Justine McCarthy will hit home, as none will be seen as coming from opponents or those with political axes to grind.

Of the three, Alison O’Connor’s will have been the least well received, choosing, as she did, to go with the issue of age. It is a tricky personal subject, but as the few of us who have experienced two or more presidential election campaign can attest: presidential elections are all about the tricky personal subjects. There clearly is precedent, via President de Valera, of having an octogenarian as head of State, though in the case of Éamon de Valera, the voters got to have their say when he sought re-election in 1966 at the age of 83.

In contrast, Justine McCarthy’s analysis and observations may have the most impact. In essence, she warns those supporting Higgins not to play politics with this, specifically not to be cute-hoors and continually delay the announcement of the decision whether or not Michael D is running again.

The perceived wisdom is that those supporting a second term for Michael D – let us call them Team Higgins – believe their best tactic is to have a second term by acclamation. From their viewpoint, there is no overwhelming appetite among the main parties for another election next year, especially with a likely general election and referendum on the Eight Amendment already on the cards for 2018. They assume that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would be happy to see the presidency go uncontested, leaving both to focus on fighting each other. They also know that they need the two main parties to keep out if they are to coast through.

There may be some basis to this belief, but it does not factor-in the wishes of others. Presidential nominations are not the gift of the big parties that they once were. To run you need to be nominated by 20 members of the Oireachtas (TDs/ Senators) or 4 county/city councils. This makes the independents serious players as it does Sinn Féin.

Various independent TDs and Senators have already indicated that they are determined to field a candidate and, while the candidacy of the ebullient Senator Gerry Craughwell will not be much of a worry to man nor beast, there are rumours that other independents are already talking to more substantial figures as possible contenders.

But there is a problem, it is one of timing. National presidential campaigns are complex things to design, staff and build and can take 6, 9 or even 12 months to get right.

This is probably why Team Higgins is so keen to delay its announcement for as long as it possibly can. It knows the amount of work and resources required to mount a credible national campaign and it knows that anyone from outside the big political parties wanting to take a serious run at the park in the autumn of 2018 needs to start planning now. If you are an aspiring non-party candidate then the next three or four months are crucial.

What seems not yet to have dawned on Team Higgins however, is that the issue of whether there is a challenger or not has already slipped out of their hands. The best they can do now is to try to nobble a contender before their get to the starting gate – hardly the actions of a principled campaign, but this is presidential politics.

Even then, once the main parties see that there will likely be an election the internal pressure will mount to run their own candidates, at which point all bets are off and Team Higgins is in a bitter race for a second term, a second term it said clearly and repeatedly back in 2011 that it did not seek or desire.

While some in Team Higgins may still hope that they can delay an announcement well into 2018, I strongly suspect that common sense will prevail over the coming weeks and that the position will be clarified before Christmas.

If I were a betting man, I’d be putting a few euros on the President reaffirming what he originally said in 2011 and announcing that he will not be seeking a second term.

I have my doubts about Enda Kenny’s emigrants’ votes plans

13 Mar

Enda Kenny’s fascination with his predecessor John A. Costello continues. Not only is Enda determined to beat Costello’s record for time served as Taoiseach, he now seems to want to eclipse Costello’s penchant from making major constitutional announcements outside the country.

Costello announced his intention for Ireland to abandon the External Relations Act (and effectively quit the British Commonwealth and declare itself Republic) during a visit to Canada in 1948, while Kenny announces in Philadelphia that he intends to hold a referendum to give the Irish diaspora votes in future Irish presidential elections – but only in elections after the next one.

There are many legends about Costello’s Ottawa announcement, including one version that claims he made it when was “tired and emotional” and another that asserts he did it after being offended by the placing of a replica of the Roaring Meg canon used in the Siege of Derry in front of him on the dining table at a formal dinner at the Governor General’s residence. But they are only legends.

Moves to repeal to External Relations Act, which gave the British Crown limited recognition around foreign relations, i.e. Irish diplomats were formally accredited by the King, were already afoot before Costello even came to office. In late 1947 Éamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil government started preparing a repeal bill, but work on this was halted by the February 1948 election.

At least Costello was able to announce something which he could immediately legislate for and see carried into action within a reasonable space of time. Within eight months Ireland was out of the Commonwealth), in Enda’s case he has just announced plans which may not come to fruition for another 8 years (never mind 8 months) – and only then if they are passed in a Referendum, which is no absolute certainty.

We must wait a few weeks more to see the detail of the Governments proposals on extending voting rights in Presidential Elections from 2025 onwards to Irish citizens living outside of the Republic. From what the Minister of State for the Diaspora said on Radio this morning it appears that the Government intends to publish a range of options rather than a specific plan, which suggests that this whole adventure may not even be as planned and prepared as Costello’s 1948 one.

According to Minister of State McHugh there are an estimated 1.8 million citizens outside the State and a potential electorate of 1.87 million in Northern Ireland. To put this in context the total electorate eligible to vote at the October 2011 Presidential Election was just 3.2 million (On the day just 1.8m (56%) of them chose to vote).

While it is likely, if not certain, that Enda Kenny will neither be Taoiseach nor leader of Fine Gael by the time the referendum comes around, his shadow will hang over this and let’s not forget that Enda has had a penchant for starting referendums that he cannot win.

Will this be another one? I personally hope not, but I must admit that I am far from thrilled or enthused by what I have heard from the Taoiseach and his Ministers over the past few hours. Surely such a major constitutional change should be accompanied by detailed research and argument, not followed along by broad range of options for consideration to be published a month or so later.

While I can see some merit in Leo Varadkar’s description of the proposal allowing for the transformation of the Presidency into one for the whole Irish nation, highlighting the fact that Ireland has become a global nation via its diaspora, won’t we also be effectively limiting the Presidency to just a symbolic, ceremonial role? Though they are not often exercised, the Irish President does have important constitutional functions, are we perhaps diluting those for what it effectively just a gesture?

I also worry about how the referendum campaign make shape up. As we have seen in past campaigns, indeed as Leo Varadkar has observed: referendums are “by and large” never what they are supposed to be about and they can often turn into a votes on “extraneous issues… or decisions being made by the Government, such as cutbacks.”

The government’s proposed referendum, if not managed and led effectively, could perversely be turned into a reverse border poll – with the focus falling not on the wider diaspora or on the positives of giving Irish citizens in the North a formal recognition in our political process – but on worse aspect of the North and the prospect of allowing a load of hard-line DUP voters (and others) have any kind of say in the South.

Public attitudes to the North down here as not always as positive and welcoming as we would have ourselves believe. A recent poll for RTE by Dr Kevin Cunningham’s Ireland Thinks found a very mixed appetite for a United Ireland among voters in the Republic, particularly when it comes to the costs of re-unification. It roughly found that that voters in the Republic split three ways with one third being in favour, one third against and one third undecided.

That said, Brexit has pushed Irish re-unification way up the political agenda for all parties North or South: not as an absolute inevitability, but as an increasingly likely consequence of the economic consequences of Brexit.

Re-unification needs to be seriously considered now, not as some rhetorical wrap the green flag around me slogan, but as a real and viable political option. This is something that needs to be thought through seriously, which is why Micheál Martin’s announcement today that Fianna Fáil will soon publish its 12-point plan to prepare the way for unification of the island is so welcome.

We need to start talking and preparing for unification by strengthening the economic, political and educational links between the Republic and Northern Ireland. While these could help re-unification, even if that were not to come about, they would still be mutually beneficial.

Hopefully Fianna Fáil’s proposals, due in the coming months, will help provide a sound and considered backdrop for the debate on giving votes for citizens North of the border.

For the record, when it comes to votes for Irish citizens outside the jurisdiction my own preference would be to look to Leinster House rather than Áras an Uachtaráin and follow the French model by having a constituency in parliament (either in the Dáil or Seanad) voted for exclusively by Irish citizens living outside the Republic, in fact I would suggest two such constituencies: one for Irish citizens living in the North and one for Irish Citizens living elsewhere.

As it stands today, while I am inclined to vote what Enda Kenny announced in Philadelphia, I am not so enthused as to go out campaigning for it – on that score, I remain to be convinced. Over to you Leo or Simon.

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Debating this column on RTÉ’s Late Debate – video clip below

ENDS