President Michael D. Higgins’ term in office ends in early November.
For the last few months, there’s been occasional talk about a presidential election – mostly centred around discussing if we’ll even have one. Michael D has been very popular as President, and there’s few who would disagree that he’s done a great job.
However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a serious discussion about whether he is the right person to represent Ireland for the next seven years.
It’s often said that our President has no power, with comparisons made to the presidency of the United States. I don’t accept that. While it’s true that our President has no executive power, I don’t believe that makes the President powerless. In fact, I would argue that it gives the Presidency even more power, with the potential to unite the country behind an idea. The power to unite us through emotions. Look at the United States right now – yes, Donald Trump has executive power, but over the most divided America in modern history. Their president is a divisive figure.
Ours is a unifying Presidency, and Michael D. Higgins is an excellent example of that. His predecessors, Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, aren’t far behind either.
Our Presidency is Ireland’s face to the world. It unites the country around a common message or theme. It sends that message to the world, it shows the world an aspect of what Ireland is. Who we choose as our President says something very deep and fundamental about who we are as a nation. About how we want the world to see us.
Micheal D. was the face of an Ireland of the scholars. An Ireland of history and culture and tradition. But he was also the face of an Ireland of a classless society. His election said to the world that in Ireland, the academics and the writers are not elitist, just people like any other. Those were powerful messages to send to the world, especially in an age where celebrity often overtakes culture, traditions become lost, and education often treated as elitist. He wasn’t just a President of literature and language, he was a President for the kid who gets bullied in primary school for knowing the answers.
While that remains a powerful message, it is not the only face Ireland has to present to the world. In fact, I think there’s a more powerful message we can send for the next Presidential term: a message about what kind of nation Ireland now wants to be. A message of equality. A message that we want an Ireland of equals – regardless of gender, religion, or place of birth. Especially given Brexit, I think we also need to send a message of peace and reconciliation between all the people on this island. A message of respect.
A couple of names have been put forward as potential candidates. Most do not embody this message, or any messages I would want to send to the world.
Gerard Craughwell has put his name forward, but has not said anything about why he wants to be President, other than that he believes there should be an election. If he’s the only challenger, the election results would make Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un jealous.
Kevin Sharkey would send the opposite message – a message of an exclusionary Ireland, an insular Ireland, a Ireland weak and frightened of change. That’s not an Ireland I want, and I hope it’s not an Ireland the Irish people want.
Bertie Ahern would be a divisive President, notwithstanding his role in the Good Friday Agreement.
So who could perhaps represent the message we want?
There is someone who played a strong role in the Good Friday Agreement who would send that message – Monica McWilliams.
Former leader of the NI Women’s Coalition, she worked hard throughout the peace process to promote women and to represent all the people of the north, not just nationalists or unionists. Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Ulster, she spent six years as Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
There are two other leading politicians in the north who were not involved in the Agreement, but who would embody the same message.
Naomi Long is the leader of the cross-community Alliance Party.
A Protestant from East Belfast, she is a civil engineer who stands strongly for gender equality as well as equality between the communities in the north.
Clare Bailey went from being a homeless single mother on benefits to deputy leader of the Green Party in the north, and MLA for South Belfast.
She is a strong feminist and advocate for equality and healing divisions between communities.
There’s also one non-politician I can think of. Linda Ervine, another East Belfast Protestant, is the sister-in-law of the late PUP leader and former UVF leader David Ervine – who himself gained immense respect from the nationalist community, despite policical differences. Linda now runs Irish language classes in East Belfast, and is a strong supporter of equality and respect between communities.
She is a unionist, so she might not want the job – but what a message her election would send to the world.
I would be proud to have Ireland elect any of these four as President.
Michael D has been a great President with a strong and powerful message. He’ll still be with us for a good while yet, I hope, and I don’t imagine that as a former President he would disappear from public view. Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese haven’t. But I think it’s time for a new message, a new face of Ireland to the world. Michael D told the world who we are. Let’s tell the world who we want to be.