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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Irish ‘dragon-slayer’ in pole position to win presidential election

Incumbent Michael D Higgins is the favourite to secure a second term as Ireland's head of state

Ireland's presidential candidate President Michael D Higgins speaks to media after a debate on RTÉ. Reuters
Ireland's presidential candidate President Michael D Higgins speaks to media after a debate on RTÉ. Reuters

In less than a fortnight, Irish voters will be asked to choose between three Dragons Den judges, a former charity worker, a nationalist politician and a poet to serve as their head of state for the next seven years.

While the high number of reality star nominees might indicate that Ireland could be about to elect its very own Donald Trump as president, the hot favourite is the incumbent Michael D Higgins.

Backed by the three major parties, Mr Higgins, or “Michael D”, as he is affectionately known, seems highly likely to return to the Aras (the president’s official residence) at the end of this month, if polls are to be trusted. The role of president in Ireland is largely ceremonial with limited powers.

Former poet, academic, trade unionist and minister for culture Mr Higgins has a significant lead on his opponents with the most recent poll placing him at 70 per cent.

His closest challenger is former dragon Sean Gallagher on 14 per cent, followed by mental health activist Joan Freeman (six per cent), Sinn Fein’s candidate Liadh Ní Riada (five per cent). The other former dragons Gavin Duffy and Peter Casey polled at just four per cent and one per cent respectively.

It is perhaps unsurprising that at the first full debate with all the candidates held by RTE on Saturday, two of the five other nominees chose to focus their energies on the president, his spending, his age and even his two beloved Bernese mountain dogs, Síoda and Brod.

Derry born entrepreneur Mr Casey launched most of his questions at Mr Higgins, asking why he needed a 250,000 euro salary, something the former Dragon said he would forego if elected. “Your rent is paid. Your driver’s paid. Your food is paid for. Your nice suits are paid for. What do you spend it on? Even your dog-grooming bills are paid for.”

The businessman also questioned what he said were a dwindling number of public engagements being carried out by the president. “It’s not his fault he’s 77,” Mr Casey said, adding that he himself woke up at 5.30am every morning to exercise.

Ireland's presidential candidates (L to R) Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy, Joan Freeman, Sean Gallagher, President Michael D Higgins and Liadh Ni Riada. Reuters
Ireland's presidential candidates (L to R) Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy, Joan Freeman, Sean Gallagher, President Michael D Higgins and Liadh Ni Riada. Reuters

While Ms Ní Riada described Mr Higgins’ spending as “exorbitant” and chastised the president for using a private jet, the Learjet, to travel to nearby Belfast.

Although Mr Higgins’ response to Mr Casey and Ms Ní Riada’s failed to explain away what some might see as extravagant expenditure (his retort to an accusation of overuse of the government helicopter was that he’d only used it 14 times), this seems unlikely to dent his already huge margin.

Indeed, after the debate, the Twittersphere was more concerned that the two dogs, beloved by the nation and frequently used for photo opportunities, had been brought into the argument.

Known for being a staunch liberal and a member of Ireland’s Labour Party for over 40 years, Mr Higgins’ message of economic and social equality resonates with a country that has changed drastically in little over a decade. Ireland’s experience in the last economic crash, a period of rapid growth followed by sharp recession which led to high unemployment, bred mistrust in big business’s ability to solve the growing amount of hardship. Although the Celtic tiger is beginning to roar again, the uncertainty of what effect Brexit will have on the Irish economy is dampening any hopes of a financial resurgence to pre-2008 levels.

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While two constitutional referenda in three years, which successfully brought about equal marriage and abortion reform, show the country is no longer under the control of the once powerful Catholic Church. Although as president he did give his opinion on either of the votes, Mr Higgins, a self-declared feminist and equal rights supporter, fits well within the growing number of socially conscious voters. His main left-leaning rival Ms Freeman was revealed to have voted against liberalising Ireland’s abortion ban in May.

In 2011, Mr Higgins’ ascendance to the presidency was not so assured. Former dragon Mr Gallagher, who also ran, was the front-runner until just days before the vote when his campaign was derailed by questions about a donation he received during a live TV debate.

This time round, Mr Higgins has seven years of predominantly well-received presidential service to see him through. Barring any further damning revelations about canine grooming costs, it seems Michael D is likely to slay the dragon(s) once again.