Impressions: ‘Heart and History’: A brief prefatory of the formation of the 2011 Irish Presidential Election
(My first post here, don’t judge too quickly as I wrote it without sustained reflection and pretension in the two hours preceding the creation of this blog, just to test if I had the journalistic rigour to keep up this blog! the news in here, is only 8 hours old, so enjoy!)
I believed myself to be experiencing a form American-style over anticipation, beginning blogging about an election quite far in the future(October) until I realised that it was already the seventh month of the year. But why now? Because as of 4 hours ago the two individuals in greatest contention for the Presidency, have been decided.
Paradoxically, A ceremonial Presidency of a Republic (not subject to the ruthless political and media scrutiny of the American model) is based on a belief that an individual can embody a nation and the ideals of a nation. Ireland, a nation that has faced many existential threats is no stranger to hero-worship, maybe Presidents such as Douglas Hyde and Eamon De Valera have been elevated to the pantheon of great historical figures such as Patrick Pearse and Michael Collins; but this is no inevitable fate, but Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh and Erskine Childers may be the only Presidents not to make a significant political impact on their nation, surprising given the ceremonial politics associated with the office.
This will be the first Presidential Election since the 80 years of Fianna Fail dominance has forever receded , the once hegemonic party struggling to field a candidate after being justifiably crucified in this year‘s General Election. The Election could have been expected to witness the first actions of an embryonic paradigm of left-right politics, so prevalent outside the 26 counties. A new polarisation not based on the legacy of the civil war but social class divisions, but this promise has been scuppered, or perhaps thankfully averted by the current coalition agreement of Centre-Right Fine Gael and the Centre-Left Labour Party; The Left is also trisected between the Labour Party, Sinn Fein and fringe socialist parties.
Another reason is that the two most prominent candidates can lay claim to a working class background: Fine Gael, perhaps the new Middle Class and Rural hegemon in Irish Politics selected Gay Mitchell- South Dubliner, former Teachta Dála(1981-2007) and MEP(2004-) of one of the poorest and most industrialised constituencies in the Republic. Mitchell centred his nomination campaign around his intimate knowledge and relationship with the European Union ( the institutions that now carry huge policy power over Ireland’s future economic direction) and his ability to win votes outside Fine Gael’s minority territory, notwithstanding the fact of being too much of a Dub may fail to invigorate the rest of Ireland.
Seemingly, a model candidate for capturing the always-elusive prize for his exuberant party (current poll ratings at a high 42 percent) , refreshingly egalitarian for a party led by a son of a former TD and witnessing the influence of the Bruton brothers in the last two decades; with the potential to capitalise on the void left by Fianna Fail, whose near-monopoly of the Presidency was a stark indicator of its philosophy’s status as the ultimate expression of Irish political faith, making Fine Gael no longer a residuary for voters in extremis.
RTE follows, with the theme of History ever-present. -
“Speaking to delegates ahead of the vote at the party’s convention in Dublin, Mr Mitchell said he had the ‘heart and the history’ to make the historic breakthrough in electing a Fine Gael president. He said he did not appeal to one class, but to all those who were striving to cope in society. Mr Mitchell claimed there was nobody currently active in politics who had more experience in politics than he had. He also stressed his domestic experience, and said he represented one of the poorest constituencies for 26 years.”
Yet Mitchell looks every part the bureaucrat who would gel with the European Union’s hierarchy, and under political pressure (especially from his own party) may revert to the staid conservatism of ceremonialism rather than use presidential power pro-actively . Mitchell faces a much more romantic opponent in the diminutive figure of Labour Party’s 70 year old former firebrand and poet Michael D. Higgins, whom I like to think of as an Irish Tony Benn, a grandee showered with huge respect emanating from the party’s powerbase .contesting elections since 1969, seen very different Irelands throughout this time, and it is a testament to a third party politician to remain relevant throughout times of great change.
The Labour Party have flirted with electoral success in the past 2 years, although this has only manifested itself in opinion polls, despite doubling its share of the vote in the last General Election ,it has followed its historic role of cohabitation with Fine Gael in Government, and runs a strong risk of introducing policies which will alienate the foundations of the party.
Higgins’ beliefs and commentaries have led him to be styled in a different mould to other Irish Politicians. A former member of Fianna Fail, he was inspired to join The Labour Party after the issues trailblazed by Noel Browne were “entirely consistent” with his experience of poverty in childhood which catapulted him into a peripatetic early adulthood. Notably a Human Rights campaigner, with a broad interest in political dynamics outside Ireland and a belligerent critic of American neo-conservatism, once labelling a defender of the philosophy as a ‘wanker’ very Haugheyesque, however, it would be hard to imagine(and Higgins may wish to emphasise this) Higgins and Haughey sharing common thoughts on political and civic service.
Critics, obviously less enamoured, see a victory for Higgins as transforming the Aras into a retirement home rather than abode of dynamic intellectualism, a consolation prize for the vulnerable Labour Party. The flipside of Higgins’ passion can be his tendency long-winded and over the top. He doesn’t take direction or advice, preferring to rely on his own intemperate instincts. And sometimes they are not in tune with a changed political environment. And, say colleagues, he can be thin-skinned, short-tempered and too quick to rage and insult. Ideology, not much of a focus for Presidential elections, in Higgins’ case has been shown to be tempered by political opportunism, virulently opposed to capitalism when a backbencher in the 1980s but quick to submit when offered a cabinet post in the 1990s. I will end on a note that, while illustrating pretension may suit Higgins’ when it comes to the Presidency;
At a crisis meeting of Labour TDs in the early 1980s, the then leader, Frank Cluskey, noticed that Higgins was absent. When he was told that he was in the Middle East on an emergency mission, he quipped: “Trust Michael D to take the easy option. He chose saving the world over saving the Labour Party.”