Ireland’s Peculiar Presidential Election


“…On October 26, Ireland will elect a powerless head of state. Less American president than British monarch, Uachtarán na hÉireann plays a purely symbolic role, representing some notional “character” of the Irish people but making no important policy decisions. Those voting in the upcoming election will make their choice with this peculiar criterion squarely in mind. Nonetheless, that symbolic role, and Irish voters’ awareness of it, makes the presidential vote consequential. It will say a lot about the Irish, and a lot about how the Irish wish to be perceived.

In the seven years since his inauguration, incumbent Michael D. Higgins has achieved near-heroic status in Irish daily life. Widely adored for his short stature and antiquated speech — as well as for other asinine reasons — the former Teachta Dála (i.e., member of parliament) has capitalized on the romantic image of a poetic, scholarly Ireland that transcends crude obsessions with material wealth.

Material wealth, in Higgins’s telling, almost always signifies America. His speeches, which typically rehash socialist boilerplate, also aim to convey to his international audience distance between Ireland and the United States. And although his rhetoric is routinely light on substance, Higgins has convinced a surprisingly large section of the Irish population that passion, prolixity, and idyllic dreaming are sufficient to qualify him as an intellectual giant…”


“…Higgins is a populist himself. Lionized as a champion of knowledge and reason in an age when ignorance runs amok in Europe and America, Higgins reassures a population discombobulated by Trump and Brexit by feeding their sense of intellectual superiority. Yet that sense of superiority rests on precious little substance. It feeds on grievance anchored in events outside living memory and having to do with an entirely different global power structure. In this respect Higgins’s strain of populism is symptomatic of an Irish identity that longs for parity with American influence despite the obvious asymmetries between the two countries. The most powerful Irishman in Ireland will never compare to the most powerful Irishman in America, after all… …In reality, Higgins’ populist appeal is entirely dependent on America’s apathy. That a figure with his history can be elected at no risk to transatlantic relations — even in the capricious age of Trump — is indicative only of his irrelevance. Sadly, much of Ireland’s population has embraced a parochial way of thinking that rages against American economic and military might, yet takes its benevolence for granted…”