A future Irish historian glancing over some of the headlines in the Autumn of 2018 would be surprised at the national fixation with the 2018 Irish Presidential Election. This fixation could have been forgiven had the race been dogged with controversy or even tightly fought instead of merely bring a taxpayer funded coronation ceremony for President Higgins. As it is unfolding #Aras18 is not this.
Barring something drastic President Higgins shall win re-election, possibly with the largest landslide seen in the history of the office. As we are becoming used to in this country, his victory will surely result in him praising the open and tolerant Ireland he has come to personify, and more importantly, benefit from.
Those dignifiedly calling for an election to avoid rubbing stamping a second term may have had principle on their side but the point still remains, the only difference being a waste of public money and attention span. The fact of the matter is that Higgins embodies a presently unassailable liberal technocracy buoyed by a welcoming majority of the Irish electorate.
In ideal circumstances the race could have played host to a genuine populist backlash against the current order but instead any anti-Higgins vote is split among the prospective, largely ego driven challengers.
By far the most stunning presidential election in the 26 counties occurred in 2011 with the rise and subsequent immolation of Seán Gallagher, but the effect this had on the general trajectory of Irish politics is negligible. If the 2008 Crash showed anything it is that Irish political memory can be quite fickle at times, and that the infamous TV debacle resulting in Gallagher’s collapse in the polls can easily be viewed as invalidation of entire election was soon forgotten.
What the race for the presidency falls foul of in this country is a particular media-political complex that seeks to amplify even the most mundane of issues into something large enough to sustain the vast array of twitter based media professionals that comprise the Irish media. Ireland in 2018 by its size and nature lacks the sort of larger than life personalities and newsworthiness that helps sustain interest in things like the American Presidential election.
This is made worse by how utterly immaterial the office is in the day-to-day running of country. The constitutional importance of the presidency is there to see in Bunreacht, but that being said no one really doubts that these powers could easily be outsourced to other parts of Oireachtas or even taken over by the judicial and diplomatic systems with very little injury done to Irish democracy.
The simple truth is that petty national politics matters little in light of the looming geopolitical and economic asteroid that is Brexit and its ramifications upon the island of Ireland, as any future historian will note.
Largely out of the hands of the Irish, Brexit has the opportunity to shatter the ‘end of history’ style liberalism that dominates Irish public life today. Whether one regards this as a positive or negative is another matter.
For those on the anti-globalist right in Ireland, Brexit – warts and all – is to be welcomed. Thirty years of detached liberal technocracy and its policies were punished by a disgruntled electorate with Westminster being rattled to its very core. This is sweetened by the destabilisation caused to both British and European Unions. Nevertheless, the short to medium term effects are likely to be calamitous and to redefine Irish politics putting entire island at a geopolitical fault line for the first time since WW2.
In the face of this our future historian may think it a bit childish for the Irish media and indeed the public to focus on what amounts to a pre-decided race for an office the importance of which is negligible. Had the global 2016 populist victories not occurred and Ireland was steaming ahead with healthy GDP growth and unemployment perhaps this over indulgence could have been forgiven.
The fact they did occur and that Ireland faces a myriad of structural issues around corruption and housing, and that then so much media time is diverted from real issues is a scandal and reflects poorly on the priorities of the nation.
The matter of whether or not the Presidency should be abolished should linger in the minds of those taking a critical eye towards Irish politics. For conservatives in an era where we most certainly are a minority electorally – any chance to streamline if not reduce the prestige of liberal power should be welcomed.
If the presidency in days of Douglas Hyde represented an apolitical cultured figure that flew the flag for the nation on the world stage, the presidency since the election of Mary Robinson continuing on to Higgins is merely the expression of liberal dominance in Irish life. It is a source of conservative downfall to still believe in formerly decent institutions past the point they have been utterly compromised.
If the presidency is worth abolishing in the eyes of the electorate then so be it, however in the spirit of the old cliche around voting, if such a referendum did matter it likely wouldn’t occur.
In the meantime it is my suggestion that Irish minds should stay focused on the rapidly changing world that stands to irrevocably alter Ireland – no matter who is in the Áras.