After a colourful cast of characters declared interest in running for the office of the President, ranging from burlesque dancer tuned Marilyn Monroe impersonator Sarah Louise Mulligan to Kevin Sharkey, who dreamed of Famine villages complete with red-head girls strumming the harp; the field has been narrowed down to five candidates. Notably, this the first election since 1966 in which an incumbent president is being challenged for their office. The challengers are Dragons Den alumni Peter Casey and Sean Gallagher, Gavin Duffy, Sinn Féin candidate Liadh Ní Riada, and Senator Joan Freeman, a psychologist, and founder of Pieta House.
Higgins’ age has been a source of contention during his 2011 campaign. The issue of his age has cropped up again as he seeks another term in office. Former presidential candidate against Higgins, Senator David Norris, speaking to the Seanad, said: “With the best will in the world, do you want a president who’ll be 85 in the last year?”. Perhaps the other candidates are emboldened that Higgins is 77. They might even deem him an ineffectual leader. At this age, what more can Higgins offer? Maybe it is time for him to throw in the towel in the presidency.
Peter Casey has emphasised “extending the influence of Ireland around the globe” in his campaign. He wants to set up an “Irish Birthright Programme”. This programme will encourage Irish people abroad to send their children to Ireland to help them gain an understanding of their roots. This may boost tourism as well. Casey has even suggested the setting up of massive open online courses. He vows not to take the “bonkers” salary of the president, instead he will donate the monthly cheque of €27,000 to a different county council.
Gavin Duffy is basing his campaign on “five pillars”: youth, age, diversity & inclusion, respect and working together. His most notable idea is “the creation of an Ireland International Youth Corp, so young people aged between 18 and 25 can volunteer to take part in a year-long, certified training and development programme – to find their direction, build personal skills, travel overseas and support emerging communities”. He wants to utilize the soft powers of the president to create positive social change.
Sean Gallagher launched his campaign online, after he came second in the last presidential race, when a tweet imploded his campaign. He promises to campaign for a united Ireland and intends on building on the work Mary McAleese has done during her presidency. He believes that “we will see a united Ireland in [his] lifetime.” It feels like Gallagher is returning to do unfinished business. He seems to understand the soft power of the president and has said that “it is less about legislation and more about imagination.”
Just because someone is a successful businessmen doesn’t mean they will be an excellent president. The playing field of politics is vastly different from that of business. They aren’t conducting any sales or doing negotiations. They are representing Ireland in foreign trips, welcoming dignitaries, making keynote speeches in various functions. Their words and behaviour will be scrutinised. They will be held to the standard of that of a president, not that of a businessman. One misstep could lead to controversy, and bad impressions last. As well intentioned as the grand ideas is of the Irish Birthright Programme and Ireland International Youth Corps may be, it all feels unnecessary and grandiose. What are the chances that these projects could come to fruition during their seven year term? Where will the funding come from for these initiatives?
Senator Joan Freeman wants to use the president’s soft power to bring awareness to mental health issues and create more national discussion around the issue. She even promised to hold a summit on mental health. Speaking to Carlow councillors, she says she has been accused of “being a one trick pony, but that trick is very big”. She was also nominated by former Taoiseach Enda Kenny as a senator. She has some political experience, but she has never contested an election either. Despite her single issue campaign, it is an important issue in Irish society. However, she needs a much more multifaceted campaign. A president has to be able to comment on other issues. A controversy has already erupted as it was revealed that she has been given a €120,000 loan from LA-based Irish businessman Des Walsh, founder of Herbalife, which had been accused of operating as a pyramid scheme in the US. Whether or not she will come out unscathed from this controversy is for the future to reveal.
Ni Riada’s centrepiece will revolve around a united Ireland. She wants to shift the focus of the public to the issue of Irish unity. She believes that the “next great debate will be about Irish Unity” and wants to “start that conversation”. She also vows to hold the Oireachtas accountable. She would use the “ability to address the Oireachtas, to remind legislators of the values that matter – sharing prosperity, caring for all citizens and showing solidarity with others”. Ni Riada is a showpiece and a mouthpiece for Sinn Féin, but she has tried to distance herself from the Sinn Féin with the lack of the party’s logo in her posters. Ni Riada has political experience as an MEP for Ireland and looks like she could take on the job of the president. She seems to feel like she’s obliged to run, as Sinn Fein didn’t want Higgins to run unopposed and she only intends to serve one term if elected.
The candidates should work within the parameters of the office. There’s no need to overshoot with pompous promises and projects. What Ireland needs is a figurehead with strong principles to represent Ireland in a dignified manner. A leader needs to stand for the values the Irish people hold.