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Ireland’s Peculiar Presidential Election

Ireland President Michael D. Higgins speaks to reporters after a presidential debate on RT Radio 1 in Dublin, October 13, 2018. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)
It’s a consequential race for a symbolic role, and the incumbent is vehemently anti-American.

On October 26, Ireland will elect a powerless head of state. Less American president than British monarch, Uachtarán na hÉireann plays a purely symbolic role, representing some notional “character” of the Irish people but making no important policy decisions. Those voting in the upcoming election will make their choice with this peculiar criterion squarely in mind. Nonetheless, that symbolic role, and Irish voters’ awareness of it, makes the presidential vote consequential. It will say a lot about the Irish, and a lot about how the Irish wish to be perceived.

In the seven years since his inauguration, incumbent Michael D. Higgins has achieved near-heroic status in Irish daily life. Widely adored for his short stature and antiquated speech — as well as for other asinine reasons — the former Teachta Dála (i.e., member of parliament) has capitalized on the romantic image of a poetic, scholarly Ireland that transcends crude obsessions with material wealth.

Material wealth, in Higgins’s telling, almost always signifies America. His speeches, which typically rehash socialist boilerplate, also aim to convey to his international audience distance between Ireland and the United States. And although his rhetoric is routinely light on substance, Higgins has convinced a surprisingly large section of the Irish population that passion, prolixity, and idyllic dreaming are sufficient to qualify him as an intellectual giant.

There’s more to Higgins’s dislike of the United States than just misty-eyed waffling at the U.N., though. His past is riddled with unsavory anti-American antics, such as extending warm welcomes to Communist dictators, sympathizing with Islamists, and, more recently, mourning Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. Nor is this record reducible to a naïve or ineffective effort at diplomacy: Further examination reveals anti-Americanism at the very core of Higgins’s ideology.

Higgins conveniently forgets the atrocities and abuses committed by the aforementioned dictators, but he has relentlessly pursued every last perceived American transgression. In 2003, he excoriated an “illegal” Iraq War justified by a “mountain of lies,” demonized the United States as scornful of international law, and casually attributed all the war’s civilian deaths to U.S. forces. During the Obama era he blamed American “fundamentalist madness” for conflict in the Middle East, and he has little compunction about weighing in on U.S. elections.

Despite this, Higgins remains largely uncontroversial. To its detriment, modern Ireland retains a mistrust of global powers, ingrained by the country’s experience with colonial Britain. As successor to the British Empire, the United States represents dominance and is therefore perceived as a threat to a unique Irish identity. For this reason, left-wing narratives that cast the U.S. as an exploitative mercantilist power survive in the face of considerable counter-evidence. They breed a kind of self-conscious global populism of the “little guy” nation standing up against the unipolar hegemon.

In this respect, despite all his pontificating about the dangers of populism, Higgins is a populist himself. Lionized as a champion of knowledge and reason in an age when ignorance runs amok in Europe and America, Higgins reassures a population discombobulated by Trump and Brexit by feeding their sense of intellectual superiority. Yet that sense of superiority rests on precious little substance. It feeds on grievance anchored in events outside living memory and having to do with an entirely different global power structure. In this respect Higgins’s strain of populism is symptomatic of an Irish identity that longs for parity with American influence despite the obvious asymmetries between the two countries. The most powerful Irishman in Ireland will never compare to the most powerful Irishman in America, after all.

In reality, Higgins’ populist appeal is entirely dependent on America’s apathy. That a figure with his history can be elected at no risk to transatlantic relations — even in the capricious age of Trump — is indicative only of his irrelevance. Sadly, much of Ireland’s population has embraced a parochial way of thinking that rages against American economic and military might, yet takes its benevolence for granted.

Like every populist movement, much of its appeal lies in its own futility. Rather than make ill-conceived attempts at cutting the American presidency down to size, the Irish electorate can choose to treat our own institution as one worthy of American esteem, not indifference. It would be a shame if we missed that opportunity.

Ciaran Burke — Ciaran Burke is a political commentator from Dublin, Ireland.

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