President Higgins has reached out – and even on 1916 Rising he was measured

Queen Elizabeth II (with Sabina Higgins, the Irish preisdent's wife, to her left in the picture) and President Michael D Higgins (with the Duke of Edinburgh on the right) watch a ceremonial welcome at Windsor Castle during the first State visit to the UK by an Irish president, April 8, 2014
Queen Elizabeth II (with Sabina Higgins, the Irish preisdent's wife, to her left in the picture) and President Michael D Higgins (with the Duke of Edinburgh on the right) watch a ceremonial welcome at Windsor Castle during the first State visit to the UK by an Irish president, April 8, 2014

On Friday, October 26, the electorate in the Republic of Ireland will select their president to serve for the next seven years.

There are six candidates in the field, including the current president, Michael D Higgins (now aged 77) who is seeking renewal of his term of office despite an earlier assurance that he did not intend to do so. Every indication to date suggests he will score a runaway victory.

I hear readers say: “So what – what interest could this possibly hold for the people of Northern Ireland?” It is a relevant question.

Certainly the campaign is by any standards lacklustre with none of the rival candidates exciting anything approaching sustained public interest.

Little wonder perhaps as for the most part they are little known to the public (with reference interestingly made in the press to the fact that three of the rival candidates have been panellists on the RTE Television programme Dragons’ Den).

Of the six candidates, five are classified as independent and Liadh Ni Riada, the daughter of Irish composer Sean O’Riada, the only party political nominee (Sinn Fein).

The businessman candidate Peter Casey, another of the candidates, comes from Derry but has been based in the United States.

The role of Irish president is designed essentially to be that of a ceremonial head of state with the office holder precluded for the most part from acting without prior sanction of the government of the day.

Aras an Uachtarain, the residence of the president in Phoenix Park and formerly the Vice-Royal Lodge, had until more recent times become something of a retirement home for former senior Irish political figures (in particular, Eamon de Valera who left presidential office at the age of 90).

There is reason to note how Irish presidents of more recent times, starting with Mary Robinson, have exercised an element of individual initiative and sought to undertake a more active, if originally unanticipated, role.

This development has been nowhere more obvious than in relation to Northern Ireland and arrangements which have been successfully established with the United Kingdom and the British monarchy.

Mary Robinson assumed office as something of an outsider but with a record as a distinguished lawyer and a remarkable human rights agenda.

Her victory was unexpected and due not least to the relationship revealed during the later days of the campaign between her rival Brian Lenihan (Fianna Fail minister) and sinister manoeuvres on the part of Charles Haughey.

Mary Robinson had also resigned from membership of the Irish Labour Party over the failure of the coalition led by Garret Fitzgerald to consult Ulster Unionists in the run up to the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement.

Mary McAleese, in contrast, was known to be strongly-nationalist in attitude but she also sought to establish some Unionist connections – regrettably only to utter an ill-chosen and insulting comment linking the hatred people in Northern Ireland transmitted to their children with that transmitted by the Nazis towards Jews.

The decision of Mary McAleese’s husband, Martin, to invite a leading UDA figure to the exclusive K Club for golf was also for many people north and south understandably unacceptable.

Michael D Higgins was to show a degree of inclusivity in his approach. With his love of literature and interest in international affairs, he gave an excellent address in Armagh at the International John Hewitt Summer School (a very non-sectarian address about Ulster poet John Hewitt and his ability to transcend national boundaries), and during his term of office, when presiding over the 1916 Rising Centenary celebrations, he did so in a generally measured manner (this latter role being noteworthy in view of the divided allegiance of his father and uncle in the early 1920s).

Each of the three most recent presidents also took steps to secure relations with the UK and monarchy as was most recently demonstrated by the first official visit in April 2014 by an Irish president (Michael D Higgins) to the United Kingdom.

So there is reason to take an interest in the forthcoming election and in due course judge whether the role assumed by the incoming president in relation to Northern Ireland develops to any extent – and how too this may yet be affected by Brexit.

It is an interesting prospect.

• Brian Garrett, lawyer and former fellow of international affairs at Harvard University, and ex-chairman of the Northern Ireland Labour Party