Labour Presidential candidate Michael D Higgins was on the campaign trail in Longford last Thursday where he launched a broadside on his fellow candidates in the race while at the same time, underlining his credentials in the arts community.
“This is my first time in Longford since I got the nomination (to run as a candidate),” Mr Higgins told the Leader in the lobby of the Longford Arms Hotel. “The campaign is going very well and the public response is very good.”
To look at the wily former Arts Minister, you could be forgiven for asking why a tense and undoubtedly gruelling race for the highest office in the land would appeal to a man who last April celebrated his 70th birthday.
Yet as soon as the mere mention of the Irish Presidency crops into the conversation, Higgins’ demeanour suddenly changes.
Referring to a recent Irish Times/Ipsos Mori poll, which showed both David Norris and Gay Mitchell leading the race, the Labour Party president was quick to turn the tables, preferring instead to focus on his own attributes.
“It (poll) had three people very close together,” he simply insisted. “I think the most significant part of the poll was the transfer pattern. The part that I found most interesting was the characteristics that people valued the most I think I was first in that.”
Higgins was likewise keen to reflect on his two and a half year stint as Minister for Arts, Culture and Tourism during the mid 90s and in particular his role in sanctioning the emergence of Longford town’s Backstage Theatre.
“Did you know I funded that?” he purposively asked the Leader. “I think there is a plaque I have yet to unveil up there and I funded 14 of these theatres on the very simple basis that I didn’t think you had to be living in the city centre to be able to attend museums.”
In rejecting assertions his heavy arts based involvement could be seen by critics in a negative sphere, Higgins laughed, before launching a broadside at independent candidate Sean Gallagher.
“I don’t find any value in someone who says they want to be the CEO of Ireland. I mean, how could you say that? You can’t tell the Irish people with an election coming up on October 27 that you will do things that you can’t do.”
Speaking just days before the latest controversy surrounding the David Norris campaign emerged, Mr Higgins played down suggestions the reason behind David Norris’ surge in popularity was linked to his “political free” status as an independent.
“Look, the Irish presidency isn’t free,” he replied sharply. “Just because you call yourself an independent doesn’t mean anything. There are many people who are flying with flags of convenience who are saying they are independent.
“If you were to say to me I should set all that aside to meet David’s criteria, no I will not. What I am saying is I have much wider experience than he has and I will be a better president and we are friends. I’m glad that he’s standing (for president) and that he is in the field; I just wish that we were debating the presidency.”
Since then, the Higgins campaign has been forced to deny that its members were involved in any way with the disclosures which have rocked the David Norris campaign for the second time in a few months. Over the weekend it emerged that a number of key members of Mr Norris’s team had resigned after it emerged that he had written a letter to an Israeli court appealing for clemency for his former partner who had been convicted of the statutory rape of a 15-year-old boy.
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