Not exactly ‘The West Wing’ but Carlow town offered us a glimpse

Although popular, Michael D Higgins is seen by many as too left-wing, writes Eoin O’Malley

President Michael D. Higgins
President Michael D. Higgins

The 2018 Presidential Election campaign rolled into Carlow town last week. It wasn’t quite The West Wing, but the chambers of Carlow County Council offered us a glimpse at the qualities of some of those hoping for the chance to challenge Michael D Higgins for his job at the end of October.

As popular as Michael D is, and we’ve no reason to believe he is likely to be beaten, he is seen by many as too left-wing, and that he doesn’t represent a traditional Ireland, or an Ireland that is more business-oriented.

It is to council chambers across Ireland that the presidential hopefuls will go in the next month.

They ranged from the boring to the bizarre, but that won’t stop county councils getting at least one candidate on to the ballot paper.

The councillors will enjoy the attention, and they won’t have liked being told by their party leaders that they shouldn’t nominate. And since Sinn Fein has announced it will nominate a candidate, we know we’re going to have an election, so they can’t be accused of wasting public money on an election that some don’t see as necessary.

We didn’t learn much we didn’t already know in Carlow, but we learned that the challengers will do just that. Challenge Higgins. While none directly attacked him, the focus on the candidates’ energy and dynamism were oblique criticisms of Michael D. Those are likely to get more head on as time passes.

The entrepreneur Gavin Duffy, the artist Kevin Sharkey, and mental health campaigner Joan Freeman made presentations – but Sean Gallagher, who was briefly a leading contender in 2011, is also expected to seek a nomination, as is another businessman, Padraig O Ceidigh.

Gallagher was the de facto Fianna Fail candidate in 2011. Those who voted Fianna Fail in the general election supported him in the presidential election. Given Fianna Fail has said it won’t run a candidate, Fianna Fail councillors might help him run again.

Is Fianna Fail’s decision a wise one? In the context of no candidate being nominated against Michael D, running a Fianna Fail candidate who was certain to lose made no sense. But now that there will be an election, does it still make sense?

Fianna Fail TD Eamon O Cuiv wants his party to reconsider that decision. There is some annoyance in Fianna Fail that Micheal Martin rushed the party into it without fully considering the implications.

O Cuiv might be right. Sinn Fein will use the election to give Mary Lou McDonald a first run at campaigning as a party leader. Just as Sinn Fein posters in the recent referendum were heavily Mary Lou-focused, the party’s candidate for Aras 2018 might be secondary to the campaign’s purpose.

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Sinn Fein activists will have a chance to test the party’s campaign machine. It gives members a reason to be involved. It’s a bit like staying fit, you need to keep working at campaigning. A presidential election is like a pre-season friendly match. It doesn’t matter much who wins, but you’re glad of the chance to get match fit. Opting out of elections saves a party money, but it can cost in the long term.

This is especially the case when Sinn Fein is challenging Fianna Fail to be the main opposition party. Already, Sinn Fein’s narrative is that Fianna Fail is effectively part of the Government. Sinn Fein says it’s challenging the elite. By conspiring with Fine Gael to support Michael D, Fianna Fail just helps push that narrative.

Another problem is that supporting Higgins is not something that many in Fianna Fail would instinctively do. Fianna Fail supporters will have to look around for who to vote for. They might have their head turned by a Sinn Fein candidate. And after you’ve voted for a party once, it becomes easier the next time. By not running a candidate, Fianna Fail is inviting party faithful to break a habit of a lifetime.

If Gallagher is the de facto party candidate, this might solve the problem for Fianna Fail. But the party won’t be able to control the message, and Martin and the rest of the party will be spectators in what will be a two-week long media bonanza just after the Budget.

Micheal Martin will have to make a decision. If he opens up the debate in Fianna Fail about running a candidate, he has to admit a mistake – something none of us enjoy. But he also knows that it will eat up resources the party doesn’t have. Nor is there an obvious candidate. Eamon O Cuiv himself might work, but it would just reinforce in people’s minds the idea that Fianna Fail represents a traditional, rural Ireland. Not, perhaps, the image the party wants to portray.

It could make a decision to support Sean Gallagher or Padraig O Ceidigh’s candidacy, making either man an official Fianna Fail candidate. But to win you need to build a coalition well beyond one party, so if I were them I wouldn’t want to be an official party candidate, or at least I’d minimise that link in the campaign.

Or it could allow its TDs and senators to support whoever they want, expanding the field of candidates, but also making it less party political. This could make Sinn Fein look like the one that’s out of place, bringing party politics to a non-partisan office.

As with most things, there is no clear best strategy for the party. Fianna Fail might think it’s best to just take the hit on coverage, and that no one will care three weeks later. But party members aren’t keen to sit yet another match out.

Eoin O’Malley is the director of the MSc in Public Policy at DCU

Sunday Independent

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