One week into the hustings, the going is already rough and about to get a lot rougher, writes Donal O’Keeffe

Sayre’s Law, as quoted by the Wall Street Journal, states “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” In Irish politics, it tends to be presidential elections which are the most vicious and bitter. Not because the stakes are low: even if you take the incumbent’s voluntary pay-cut, the Guardian of the Constitution gets quarter of a million a year to live rent-free in a Dublin mansion, enjoying all-you-can-eat haute cuisine and almost universal adulation.

Maybe Irish presidential elections are so vicious because the job is – for all the Princess Diana nonsense about setting the national mood music – such a constrained, limited role it becomes inevitably a personality contest.

I can’t say I’ve been completely impressed with Michael D’s presidency. I like the man – who doesn’t? – but frankly I was disgusted two years ago by his glowing tribute to Fidel Castro. He praised Castro for bringing “significant political and social change” to Cuba, calling him “a giant among global leaders whose view was not only one of freedom for his people, but for all the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet.”

Higgins – a lifelong and often lonely defender of human rights – made a single concession to Castro’s decades of human rights abuses: “The economic and social reforms introduced were at the price of a restriction of civil society, which brought its critics.”

At the time, I wrote: “Castro was a monster. His regime was brutal and oppressive, with thousands of opponents executed, independent media silenced, and homosexuals and Christians sent to ‘re-education’ camps. Over a million exiles fled, often risking their lives to do so.”

Last week, President Higgins got around – at last – to addressing criticisms of that speech.

He noted it was written at 7am and without the assistance of advisors: “I was probably remembering his speech to the United Nations in 1992 in which he said ‘let us pay the debt to humanity, not to the banks’. I was thinking about the new international economic order. If I was reissuing the statement now, I would probably expand the sections on human rights.”

Has Higgins put the issue to bed? Probably. Do I believe him? Hmmm.

Only a week into the presidential election campaign, the water is already getting choppy. President Higgins addressed the controversy surrounding the annual, unaudited €317,000 discretionary allowance paid to the Áras. He said it is spent on hospitality, mostly for the 20,000 people who visit the Áras every year. He also managed to duck questions about a Geneva hotel that reportedly cost €3,000 a night.

Former Dragons Den star Seán Gallagher – who came within a fake tweet of winning the presidency in 2011 – threw a low-energy strop and refused to take part in the campaign’s first presidential debate because Michael D was unable to attend due to prior presidential commitments’.

Gallagher will continue, I suspect, to face questions about his own near-complete absence from public life since 2011, skipping the 2012 children’s rights referendum, the 2014 local and European elections, the 2016 general election, the 2016 marriage equality referendum, and the 2018 repeal referendum.

Gallagher’s fellow Dragon Gavin Duffy, sounded peeved when RTÉ’s Áine Lawlor suggested Duffy’s proposed Fourth Sector Pathfinder Quiet Bat-People Youth Corps smacks of ‘voluntourism’. Incidentally, nobody seems to have picked up on the fact that if Duffy’s Youth Corps is to be funded from our overseas aid budget, this essentially means a cut in the amount of aid getting to desperately vulnerable people.

Third Dragon Peter Casey, suggested reports about a woman driving through the open gates of Áras an Uachtaráin and gaining access to President Higgins were ‘a bit coincidental‘. Pressed by RTÉ’s Mary Wilson, Casey repeated his claim before then withdrawing it.

Peter Casey also tweeted a video of him hitting a golf ball into Lough Foyle. Environmentalists point out golf balls take up to 1,000 years to disintegrate. Cork East Labour TD Seán Sherlock responded sarcastically: “Good man. Drive another bit of plastic/elastic into the ocean why don’t you! #eejit”

Casey later claimed he had jumped into the water and retrieved the ball.

It’s not as bad as the time he tweeted in support of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial drugs war, which has caused more than 7,000 deaths.

In another controversy, the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland took issue with Casey’s claims that Jewish people ‘basically live in the White House’, labelling his comments ‘ignorant’ and perpetuating ‘anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes’.

Joan Freeman, founder of the suicide prevention charity Pieta House, faced questions about a campaign loan of €120,000 she had received from her former boyfriend, US-based businessman Des Walsh. Walsh, who recently stepped down as president of the controversial ‘multi-level marketing company’ Herbalife, has made over $50 million from the company.

In 2016, Herbalife agreed to ‘fundamentally restructure’ its business and pay a $200 million fine as part of a settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) following accusations that it is a pyramid scheme. The FTC stated “it’s virtually impossible to make money selling Herbalife products.”

Sinn Féin candidate – although like Martin McGuinness before her, she’s playing the party thing down – Liadh Ní Riada spent the week saying journalists should stop asking about her children’s private medical records. Which is a bit rich, given it was Ní Riada herself who first made her daughters’ health a matter of public interest.

In 2016, Ní Riada went on Cork’s 96fm and revealed she had declined consent for her younger daughter to receive the HPV vaccine against cervical cancer. She also said her older daughter had not received the vaccine’s booster shot.

This was at a time when uptake of the HPV vaccine plummeted to an all-time low, thanks in no small part to high profile figures like Ní Riada questioning the vaccine’s safety.

She told 96fm: “I then sent a note into school today with my daughter saying that I didn’t want her to get the vaccine, the HPV vaccine.” Last Thursday, she told Áine Lawlor: “I didn’t write to their school at all. I don’t know where you’re getting your information from.”

Last week, Ní Riada said she supported the vaccine but declined to say whether she had now consented to her own child being vaccinated. She also applauded the bravery of cervical cancer sufferers Vicky Phelan and Emma Mhic Mhathúna.

Vicky Phelan, who exposed the CervicalCheck scandal, and who is fighting cervical cancer, said bluntly of Ní Riada: “The fact is she’s not being honest. If she doesn’t fully support the vaccine, she should come out and say so and be upfront about it.”

Ms Phelan told the Irish Daily Mail: “I wouldn’t want to make any demands of her, but the fact that she’s mentioning myself and Emma Mhic Mhathúna, I’d like her to clear up what her position is.”

Right now, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the presidential election might be summed up in a tweet I put out last week:

“So basically it’s Michael D versus Iona Freeman*, Operation Detoxification (Part Two) and three lads off the telly whose appearance, personalities and ideas might best be described as ‘Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’s Old Man’. #Aras18”

For all his obvious decency, I suspect Michael D is no more of a saint than any of us is, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s a fairly healthy ego operating out of Aras an Uachtaráin. As the campaign progresses, there may yet be something made of presidential expenses, or of the high turnover of staff in the Áras. That said, the man clearly knows the Constitution inside-out, and – Fidel aside – understands exactly the role of the presidency, limits and all.

Early days, and things will doubtless get a lot rougher, but right now, it’s difficult to picture any of Michael D’s putative replacements taking him down. Plus, after six years and 11 months of cuddly, saintly Miggledy, they won’t know what’s hit them when he takes the gloves off.

*Joan Freeman has said several times she is not a member of the right wing Catholic pressure group the Iona Institute, and she “disagrees with many aspects of their policies”. On September 24, she told PJ Coogan on Cork’s 96fm she “didn’t really know what the Iona Institute was” until the referendum on the Eighth Amendment.

Freeman is the aunt of Maria Steen of the Iona Institute, and the sister of Theresa Lowe, both of whom were prominent campaigners against repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Ms Freeman voted against repeal.

At the time of going to press, Ms Freeman had not responded to my questioning why – given her deeply conservative Catholic views – she is not a member of the Iona Institute, and my requests that she clarify precisely with which aspects of Iona Institute policies she disagrees.