IN THE HARDSCRABBLE Ireland in which Michael D. Higgins grew up it was not considered wise to “have notions” about yourself—to aspire to greater things, intellectually or culturally. But Mr Higgins, who was re-elected for a second term as president of Ireland on October 26th, had notions from an early age.
Born in difficult circumstances in Limerick 77 years ago, fostered at five to his uncle’s farm in County Clare, the young Michael D (as he is invariably known) was not content with being a clerk for the state electricity board. He started writing poetry, found his way as a mature student into University College, Galway, and launched himself into parallel careers as a sociology lecturer and a Labour politician.
In public life, his flamboyant intellectualism and somewhat long-winded oration might have counted as “notions” against him. His socialism seems at odds with the general political drift of a state that has been ruled by centre-right parties ever since it was born in 1921.
Yet none of this mattered last week, when the citizens of Ireland re-elected Mr Higgins to a second seven-year term with 56% of the first preference vote, compared with the 40% he won in 2011.
His success can be attributed to several factors, other than the affection in which he is widely held. First is the power of incumbency: the Irish presidency (based closely on the British monarchy which it replaced), is largely a ceremonial position, with rarely invoked constitutional powers. Once elected, presidents are expected to be above everyday politics, and to represent the best in Ireland. Those who sought re-election have usually been unopposed.
Mr Higgins’s re-election campaign had the support not only of his erstwhile Labour Party but of most of the other parties of left and right. Only Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA, broke ranks, putting forward the little-known Liadh Ní Riada as a muscle-flexing exercise. This failed dismally. Ms Ní Riada, a member of the European Parliament, got only 6.4%.
Of Mr Higgins’s four other rivals, all independents, one, Joan Freeman, is the founder of an anti-suicide charity and serves in Ireland’s Senate. The remaining three were all performers from the Irish version of the reality-TV show “Dragon’s Den”. Each one argued that, as a successful businessman, he would make a fine president. One also attacked Ireland’s traveller minority and welfare recipients, and surged from nowhere to come a surprising second with 23% of the vote.
On the same day, Ireland also voted to remove a ban on blasphemy from its constitution (changing the constitution can only be done by means of a referendum). As a result the legislature is expected soon to repeal Ireland’s anti-blasphemy law. There will be few practical consequences—no-one has been prosecuted for blasphemy in Ireland’s history as an independent state. But along with recent recognition of gay marriage (in 2015) and the legalisation of abortion earlier this year, it is further evidence that a once-conservative Catholic country has taken a sharp liberal turn. Most European countries seem to be heading in the opposite direction.