Wednesday 19 June 2019

Andrew Lynch: Higgins' backers might be voting with their hearts not their heads

WHEN Michael D Higgins was arts minister in the mid-1990s, the Saw Doctors wrote a song about him called, 'Michael D Rocking in the Dail'.

Now that he's officially the Labour candidate for president, the big question is whether he can rock the Park.

As his beaming face in the Mansion House yesterday showed, securing his party's nomination is itself the dream of a lifetime -- but as a political realist, he must know that the election will make yesterday's contest look like a cakewalk.

Behind all the smiles, Higgins supporters are acutely aware of one uncomfortable fact. On two occasions in the past, their man wanted to run for president and was blocked by his own party because opinion polls suggested he had no chance of victory.

If he wasn't considered suitable in 1997 or 2004, it's hard to see what's so different now -- which is why even some of the Labour TDs who backed him yesterday privately admitted that Fergus Finlay might be a stronger candidate.

Higgins won the nomination as a reward for his service to the party over 40 years, which has made him the closest thing Labour has to a spiritual guru.

His poetry, human rights campaigning and crucial role in setting up TG4 all helped make him one of the most recognisable politicians in the country.

He has had his heart set on the presidency for a long time -- but while there is huge affection for him as an individual, choosing him could be a classic example of TDs voting with their hearts over their heads.

Higgins also has serious weaknesses that his rivals will try to exploit. On bad days he can be irritatingly vain and pompous, as illustrated by his weak appearance on RTE's Frontline last week.

Some of his more extreme condemnations of US foreign policy may well come back to haunt him. Above all, he is 70 years old and looks it -- which could be crucial if voters decide they are looking for a fresh face.

Higgins' future prospects could well depend on what happens to his old friend David Norris. If the outspoken Senator manages to get his name on the ballot paper, then the left-wing intellectual vote would be split between those two candidates.

If Norris' views on sexuality force him to drop out, Higgins will have that space to himself -- although he will need the support of more conservative voters to get over the winning line.

Labour can at least congratulate themselves for choosing a presidential candidate with the minimum of fuss.

The same cannot be said of their coalition partners. Fine Gael's leadership has made a complete mess of trying to parachute in Pat Cox, angering their grassroots and encouraging more people into the race.

With four people now slugging it out, the party is in danger of being split -- and although this election is still FG's to lose, they are doing a pretty good job of losing it.

The arrival of Avril Doyle sets up a repeat of the 2004 European elections, when John Bruton's old girlfriend was visibly furious over the party's decision to impose Mairead McGuiness as her running mate.

The ensuing catfight was not pretty to watch and the wounds have obviously yet to heal. In the end, both women managed to defy the pundits and take a seat each -- but this time around, there can only be one winner.

On 'Michael D Rocking in the Dail', the Saw Doctors eulogised him as "The shining star for all who strive to live and love creative lives... Poet of peace and poet of words of the beckoning free-thinking world."

If they want to make him President Higgins, his campaign team are going to have to come up with something catchier.

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