by Sheila Connolly
Last week the Republic of Ireland elected Michael D. Higgins as President.
This doesn't mean quite as much as you might think. To give you some context, the nominal head of state is the popularly elected President of Ireland, this is a largely ceremonial position. The real political power being vested in the indirectly elected Taoiseach (prime minister, and if you're wondering, it's pronounced "tea-sock") who is the head of the government, plus the Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) and cabinet ministers. Legislative power is vested in the Oireachtas, the bicameral national parliament, which consists of Dáil Éireann, Seanad Éireann and the President of Ireland.
Okay, you can forget that now. The key phrase is "largely ceremonial position." In other words, the President of Ireland shows up for public events and makes nice speeches, but has no power. He (or she, for the past 14 years) is responsible for receiving foreign heads of state and making visits abroad to promote Irish interests.
Irish elections are fun to watch. Voters cast votes for multiple candidates in their order of preference. The votes are counted, and the candidates on the bottom of the heap are eliminated, and then another vote is held for the top contenders. Eventually someone ends up with a majority. This process takes a couple of days.
This time around, in the Presidential election Higgins won on the first ballot.
He's certainly qualified: he has long been a human rights activist, and the Associated Press called him "a left-wing idealist." But to keep this in perspective, let me add that his closest challenger, Sean Gallagher, is a reality TV celebrity. Another candidate was a former Irish Republican Army commander. There were seven candidates in all, including the first openly gay candidate.
Higgins is not only a poet, but also a lover of Irish arts, and Irish speaker, and president of the Galway United soccer club. He established the Irish-language TV station TG4, reinvigorated the Irish film industry, and has overseen investment in public museums. Martin Sheen calls him a "dear friend."
While the position may be toothless, the Presidency is still symbolically important, and Higgins looks forward to leading active discussions on issues facing young people, and the failure of the current Irish economic model.
I'm jealous. The presidential election in this country is a year away, and already we are being bombarded with vitriolic commercials all day long (I should mention that Ireland limits the time candidates may campaign to a few weeks). On one side we have a varying list of candidates who bounce up and down in the polls and take potshots at each other during debates. On the other we have an incumbent who is saddled with a lousy economy and a squabbling Congress that can't seem to get anything done.
What would it be like if we had someone who was eloquent and intelligent and politically aware representing us to the rest of the world? Leave all the tough policy stuff—the economy, wars, that kind of thing—to the wonks and think-tanks behind the scenes. I think we could use someone like Higgins, who can distill the essence of our problems into a few well-chosen words—and maybe inspire a majority of people to believe that there are solutions and to hope that they can find them before the whole mess blows up.