An Irish Affair – The Unusual Nature Of The Presidential Election

An Irish Affair – The Unusual Nature Of The Presidential Election

The Republic of Ireland is gearing up for its septennial presidential election on 28th October, an event which, at first glance, seems like a fairly standard affair, but upon close inspection is a curiously unique manifestation of modern democracy.

The election of a head of state is standard procedure in most republics, from France to the United States to India – but the Irish head of state resembles, politically, constitutional monarchs much more so than what we would consider a president of a democracy. The powers of the president are largely restricted to ceremonial duties in the transition of government, with roles of diplomacy and statesmanship with roles usually reserved to a figurehead (much like Queen Elizabeth II). A head of state who has little real power but is still elected seems like a liberal miracle, allowing for democracy to reach the top levels of the state while restricting the ability of government by vesting real power in the prime minister, or Taoiseach.

In light of such a system, one may conclude that this upcoming election is of little importance. There are, however, certain peculiarities about this year’s contest which draw intrigue. Most notably, it is the first time in over fifty years that an incumbent president is being challenged. Many see this as a reaction to Michael D Higgins, the president of Ireland as of now, reneging on his 2011 campaign pledge not to seek re-election in 2018, a hypocrisy viewed by some as unpalatable. There’s also a sense that the 77-year-old politician is not keen to fight a contentious battle for the office which theoretically gives a greater chance of success to his opponents. In light of these unusual factors, however, recent polling still has Higgins with 65-70% of the vote over the last two months. To ascertain reasons for his popularity, we must, therefore, look at the character of this president.

Michael D Higgins is a veteran of Irish politics and has been a player in the system for almost fifty years. Despite conservative beginnings as a student, he has spent his entire professional life as a Labour Party member, being elected as a Teachta Dála, or member of Parliament, in 1981, later losing again to spend time as the mayor of Galway before re-election in 1987. He spent some time over the next two decades in government, using his ministerial position for the promotion of the Irish language and concerning himself with international relations. Despite a desire to contest the presidency some years before his eventual election, his party agreed not to contest, in the view that they would be unsuccessful, an ironic turn of fate given the situation Higgins finds himself in today.

Higgins popularity is cemented not only by his ostensible political experience but also by his extra-professional activities, including the publication of multiple self-penned poetry collections as well as writings in journals on a variety of disciplines, including sociology and contemporary politics. His humble beginnings, living on a farm with his aunt and uncle also served to lend him an image of relatability and integrity which instil faith in the belief he holds in his social values. Winning the presidency with over a million votes, more than any other candidate in the republic’s history, the state of contention in which Higgins now finds himself situated seems far removed from the national fervour surrounding his inauguration seven years ago.

As for Higgins’ opposition, there are several worth mentioning. First is Seán Gallagher, who is running on a platform of change and a fresh approach to the nature of the office. Having secured nominations from multiple local authorities, he stands in contrast to Higgins who chose to renominate himself, an option of which the incumbent president has the privilege – making this the first election in which a self-nominated president has been challenged for re-election. Gallagher’s polling sits between 11-15%, the highest of any challenger, though due to his previous loss to Higgins in 2011 he is widely seen as unlikely to pose any real threat.

Second is Liadh Ní Riada, the Sinn Fein candidate, who is running on the usual SF platform of unifying the island of Ireland. Like Gallagher, she is also appealing to people’s desire to a newer approach, emphasising the role of democracy in the political system, an underhand sleight to Higgins’s change of tone on the subject of his re-election from 2011. While her popularity has fluctuated, she currently sits behind Gallagher at 11%. Yet, she seems unlikely to be able to capitalise on the uncertainty generated by the United Kingdom’s inability to secure against a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in negotiations with the European Union (something other Republicans believe she should have centralised as an issue in her campaign rhetoric).

The other candidates are polling at much lower numbers currently and are unlikely to have a much real effect on the outcome. Gavin Duffy, a nationally renowned businessman, is running to give voters a choice, as well as to hold Higgins to account for actions taken in the first term of his presidency. Peter Casey, another businessman, is generally seen as too right-wing for the job while Joan Freeman, though admired for her work in suicide prevention, has strong familial ties to the anti-abortion movement.

Though the election is more than likely to result in a win for Higgins, it has nonetheless proven crucial for a variety of reasons. Most of these reasons stem from Higgins’s inexplicable move to run for a second term, spurring a number of candidates, from the right and left, with backgrounds in business and politics alike, to challenge this seeming affront to democracy. Given that he has nominated himself, Higgins’s overwhelming popularity might be underestimated, but he retains the backing of the majority of the electorate as well as a number of political parties. Even after this presupposed victory, questions will continue to be asked of Higgins’s role as president, and no doubt his second term will be under much closer scrutiny than his first.

Image via Kwekubo

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