Was Michael D. Higgins elected for his policy views?


President Michael D. Higgins has caused some controversy (though this might be too strong a word) for his more outspoken comments on some issues. In a speech he gave in DCU in September he was highly critical of neo-liberalism as an ideology and economics as a discipline. We should hardly be surprised. Most know where he stands on these issues, and given that, President Higgins has probably been restrained.

However we know that Irish presidents are meant to be above politics, and while this clearly means above partisan politics, it is moot whether it also means ideological politics. President have ‘themes’ which we might think of as soft policy agenda. No one suggests that the presidency should revert to be seen as a retirement home (though this might be a bit unfair to Paddy Hillery) nor is it likely people want the President to be the subject of controversy. Presidents have been known in the past to highlight issues that might indicate their views on issues.

Dan O’Brien took exception to Higgins’s speech and argued that it was clearly ideological. It’s hard to disagree with him that it was. What we don’t know is whether the voters who elected President Higgins did so because of his ideological positions and position taking or in spite of them.

In a chapter in a new book on The Irish Presidency (edited by John Coakley and Kevin Rafter, Irish Academic Press) I use the recall poll commissioned by RTÉ and carried out by RedC to investigate the reasons for Higgins’ election.  The data aren’t ideal, but they do ask a series of questions on what was important in the respondents’ vote choice. these are Honesty and Integrity, Good candidate to represent Ireland abroad, Experience/ qualification, Good for jobs/ economy, Independence, and because the respondent agreed with the political views of the candidate.

It is striking that independence, or being non-partisan, is less important than many commentators felt during the campaign. The least important trait is agreement with political views, suggesting that ideological position on, say, the ‘culture war’ was not an important determinant of vote choice. By contrast, valence issues, honesty and ‘best candidate to represent Ireland abroad’, are rated most highly.


Note:  These figures give the point estimations for model coefficients and the 95% confidence intervals around these estimates. Where the lines do not cross over the vertical zero line they are statistically significant. The position of the point estimate does not indicate the strength of the relationship, but is determined by the measurement of the independent variables. The first five to six variables are dummy variables, whereas the bottom six are on ten-point scale.

As we’d expect having voted for Labour significantly increases the likelihood of voting for Higgins. Holding all other variables constant at their mean, almost 60 per cent of Labour voters supported Higgins, compared to just 30 per cent for those who voted for other parties. Those rating honesty and experience highly were more likely to choose Higgins rather than any other candidates (50 per cent of those rating as 10 the importance of honesty and integrity voted for him, compared to about seven per cent of those who rated it six or less, everything else being equal). Higgins was significantly less popular among those who cited agreement with the candidate’s political views, which indicates voters for Higgins were less interested in his policy or ideological position.

Partisanship is somewhat important in determining voting choice at presidential elections, but to be successful a candidates must appeal beyond party loyalties. However, while we know that Mitchell’s vote was highly partisan, he could not mobilise a great deal of his party’s support. ‘Culture’ may not be irrelevant for presidential elections, but it does not appear to decide elections, especially where there are multiple candidates for each ‘block’. In 2011 any ‘blocks’ were less obvious, but the shift in the final week of the campaign occurred across what blocks there were, not within them as we would have expected had ideology been important. Some candidates’ support, in particular that of Dana and Mitchell, appears to have been more ideologically-based than the vote for Higgins. In 2011 candidate characteristics emerge as most important. Voters sought someone appropriate for the office with less emphasis on partisan heritage or ideological position. It appears that Higgins was the least unacceptable option rather than someone whom voters voted ‘for’.

3 thoughts on “Was Michael D. Higgins elected for his policy views?

  1. Your conclusion that Higgins was the least unacceptable candidate seems well justified. Indeed the switch in voters’ intentions (as suggested by opinion polls) in the run-up to both the Presidential election and the referendum on increasing the investigative powers of Oireachtas Committees was quite remarkable. It would behove Pres. Higgins to be mindful of this. He does not have a mandate to advance the statist, collectivist, market-hating, private sector-scorning, tax and spend, rights without responsibility (regardless of cost) nostrums of the unreconstructed left.

  2. Being Critical of neo-liberalism, while being one of the main beneficiaries of it does not carry much, if any weight in my view. Spending almost a lifetime in the parallel universe of Irish politics and Leinster House, is the nearest thing you will get to being part of a permanent monopoly, and less riskier by far, than any precarious neo-liberal existence. At the same time, as imbibing the rarefied atmosphere MDH now affords himself the luxury of penning “academic” and self proclaimed “intellectual” pot shot pieces aimed at educating us mere mortals, to the terrible maladies implicit in neo-liberalism? Is this not the kettle calling the pot black? Lately, these critiques are dropped from the pages of speeches penned in no less a place of refuge as the Áras itself? The whole thing must surely count as a parody? The maxim, you can fool most of the people most of the time but not all of the people all of the time, springs to mind.

    Let us not forget, that such a system, in order to ensure it’s own longevity and smooth functioning, has conceded ground at every available opportunity, to the legal profession, which by a not strange coincidence, is another serf regulated, over remunerated body, to the point that more and more citizens cannot even afford access to legal services in their own country, unless of course, they are subsidised completely by the state.

    MDH and others are in the very top band of privilege in Irish society. They have honed their skills to a very high degree and are going to be amongst the last people in this country who would ever seriously reform a system which they themselves are not only part and parcel of but who have been highly instrumental in it’s creation, longevity and essential characteristics of inequality.

    A good example of this was Labour support for ‘benchmarking” and the blind support for Croke Park and Haddington Road insider deals. The very type of deals that MDH was alluding to when he set sail for the presidency. Deals, that cemented pay, pension(s) and perks, in the face of austerity programmes for ordinary people. MDH pointed his finger across the Dail chamber at colleagues and told them that they “had been sitting on each other’s remuneration committee’s”. A sort of implicit threat that he knew would go down well with the voting public, to expose the gross and seedy illegality of what he knew had taken place. As Chariman of the Labour Party he would have been very much in the loop regarding such appointments and would have been instrumental in appointments.

    From a life time in politics, they know precisely when to abandon their role as predator and when to assume the role of gamekeeper to maximum personal effect. Great at giving speeches working themselves up to paroxysm’s of false rage, it’s as if their fear of being found out demands such camouflage. There will be no change under this man’s presidency but there will be plenty of flares lit that will burn bright for a few days or even weeks. The irony of the last election was, that, had Sinn Fein not questioned Sean Gallagher on live TV MDH would not be president today.

    • @Robert Browne,

      You make very valid points, but the key issue here is that the President is using his office to advance false hopes of a socialist nirvana that never was and never well be. The assault on neo-liberalism should be focused at the neocons and the capitalist elites (both global and national). It is true that aspects of neo-liberalism have been subverted by the neocons and the capitalist elites – and many neo-liberals have proved to be useful idiots for them, but the broad and deep strand of liberalism that is associated with a well-functioning mixed economy has broad popular support in most advanced economies. This flows from the liberalism of Keynes and Beveridge. The accommodation with social market policies that informed centre-right Christian Democrat parties in much of western Europe remains largely extant. In Britain, it informs the ‘One Nation’ Toryism – recently expressed by the former PM, John Major. It also informs the better elements of FG and FF in Ireland.

      The current ills will be remedied only by tapping in to this popular acceptance of the mixed economy – and restructuring its functioning. Advocating a statist, selectively collectivist, historically moribund alternative is divisive and plays right in to the hands of the neocons and capitalist elites. Britain, currently, provides an excellent example of this destructive futility. The antics of the privatised energy utilities are quite rightly attracting the anger and the disgust of energy consumers. The Labour party has responded by proposing a price freeze and pandering to a reflexive popular desire to renationalise these businesses. It exhibits a pathological inability to tackle the restructuring of the industry and the markets that is required – and to build a broad platform of popular support for this restructuring. The corporate elite is responding by threatening an investment strike. Divide and conquer will prevail once again.

      The President is abusing his office by providing intelllectual support to those on the left who advance these destructive, divisive and futile policies.

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