1 November 2018 No Comments by The Northern Standard

It would be fallacious, perhaps, to try to extract some definitive ‘state of the nation’ diagnosis from the outcome of last week’s Presidential and referendum votes. The return of Michael D Higgins to Arás an Uachtaráin for another seven-year term is undoubtedly a strong endorsement for Mr Higgins personally, with his often passionate and unerringly inclusive discharge of his stately duties obviously conforming closely to what the majority of voters expect from the holder of this particular office. But the parties of the Irish political establishment who explicitly or tacitly endorsed his candidature would be presumptuous indeed if they were to claim from the result any endorsement by extension of their own policies and performance. The Irish people will not pass judgement on them until another day.

This was, in truth, not a presidential contest to set the pulses racing. The 43.9% of the electorate who took the trouble to vote was considerably – 12.2% – below the number who went to the polls in 2011 after what was a vigorously contested and often controversial campaign. The 2018 race was pallid by comparison, despite the increasingly desperate attempts by the media and some candidates to inject a little spice into what became at a relatively early stage a procession towards re-coronation for the incumbent.

Saturday’s result suggests that the Irish people have a very developed sense of what the position of President is, or should be, representative of, and that Mr Higgins is perfect casting for that perception – experienced, erudite, dignified and just a little eccentric. He is like the country’s great uncle, an avuncular dispenser of sagely wisdom who won’t let the family down at the big parties he represents us at.

The outcome of the vote also indicates that the electorate have a more sophisticated grasp of what the Presidency isn’t, and cannot be, than some of the candidates gave them credit for. Few people succeed in a job interview by telling their prospective employers how the position they are applying for should have an entirely different set of roles and responsibilities to those on the application form – and this inconvenient but rather obvious fact of life perhaps offers a common explanation for the fates that befell the contest’s also-rans.

Of the vanquished, Independent candidate Peter Casey is perhaps the only one to emerge with some sense of personal satisfaction. To command 23% of the votes after a campaign almost derailed by comments which provoked ire in the Travelling community and among social welfare recipients was a surprising, and to some people disturbing, turn of events.

Maybe it was Mr Casey’s casting of himself as a President for the diaspora (a platform he elaborated on at length when unsuccessfully seeking the favour of Monaghan Co Council) that earned him the runners-up spot. Maybe it was his accomplishments in the world of business and the celebrity factor that association with the television programme Dragon’s Den bequeathed him. Or maybe he found himself the inadvertent figurehead for some silent substantial minority of Irish opinion who find the prevailing social currents of inclusiveness and respect for difference a little unsettling.

Some people have got very exercised about the last of those three possibilities, and certainly Mr Casey will find it difficult to secure an accommodating home in the political mainstream for any ongoing political ambitions his foray into vote-seeking might have stoked. But the furore he ignited is salutary in its reminder that the goodly social aspiration towards greater tolerance and understanding is almost always a work in progress and we should never be complacent in this regard. And, given that we struck a blow for free speech with the blasphemy referendum outcome, we ever have to be minded that we might not always like what people exercise the freedom to say.

Sinn Féin have found the outcome of the Presidential election troubling for other reasons. After venturing where Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil feared to tread, and choosing a candidate in Liadh Ní Riada who seemed to tick all the right boxes for the perceived job description, they will be disappointed and concerned to have collected only 6.3% of the votes cast.

Their MEP and soon-to-be Cavan/Monaghan General Election candidate Matt Carthy almost immediately called for “a full review of the way in which we ran the campaign and the message that we presented. We will have to analyse this and all other aspects of the election and learn the lessons for the battles ahead.”

Those battles are certain to come on the European and local government front next year, and pretty soon afterwards at national level and Mr Carthy and his party are understandably anxious to ensure that the steady electoral momentum SF have built up continues on an upward trajectory. And the MEP will surely be casting a particularly cautionary eye on the local Cavan/Monaghan battlefield, as he prepares to assume the reins of command from the veteran general Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD. It will be a significant transition period for the party, and a strengthening of their electoral machine in Co Cavan will be a necessity if they are to make a serious bid to gain two of the five seats at stake in the next General Election.

But one suspects that FF and FG too would now be considering immediate reviews and campaign analysis if they had opted to beard Mr Higgins in his den. SF may feel that they deserved a little more credit from the electorate for making a contest rather than a coronation out of the filling of the Presidential position, but the credibility dividend might merely have been deferred.

Irish people might be anything but satisfied with the state of the nation, but it is clear that a substantial majority of us are very satisfied indeed with the job Mr Higgins has been doing as President. This was a necessary but rather desultory election and the voters gave it its due, and no more than that.

They will have much more to say in the 2019 local government and European Parliament elections, and will surely match even Mr Higgins for eloquence when it comes to the election of our next Government.

But for now, they are content with the message: carry on, Michael D!

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