In 1966, the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, Eamon de Valera confidently put himself forward for re-election. Fine Gael decided to contest the election and put forward Tom O’Higgins. The idea of Fine Gael opposing ‘The Chief’ in the same year as the golden jubilee of the Easter Rising greatly irritated many within Fianna Fáil. Some members of the party blamed The Irish Times, which had insisted that the electorate be given a choice of candidates. In November 1965 it had declared that ‘the spirit of 1916 would be well borne out if next year were to see a Fine Gael President. For the other side of the old Sinn Féin house has still its part to play and that party is not lacking in men who could with dignity and vigour fill the office.’ It also welcomed O’Higgins’ candidacy by noting that the electoral contests were ‘the essence of a healthy democratic system’.
Not everyone saw it that way, and Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Ó Moráin denounced the paper:
‘From the time it appeared that there would not be any candidate opposing the president. The Irish Times spoke, however, demanding that Fine Gael oppose the President...We all know the Irish Times is the mistress of the Fine Gael party and mistresses can be both vicious and demanding. Now it may be necessary for the Fine Gael party to jump at the crack of The Irish Times’ whip and gather the relics of the old ascendancy around them. It would, however, be a sad day for our people if the outlook of the President of the Irish people was forged and shaped by the occupants of a back room in Westmoreland Street’.
O’Higgins responded: ‘I do not know anything about the vicious demands of mistresses. On these questions I bow to the superior knowledge of Mr Morain.’
Dev won the election, and The Irish Times was gracious, if a little ironic. It commented that while de Valera’s old age and failing sight could not justify the electorate in voting against him, the manner of his candidature was a ‘strong argument ‘ for so doing.
It believed that, being the serving president, de Valera should have nominated himself instead of accepting ‘the nomination of the political party which he led since its inception’.
In contrast O’Higgins’ appeal to young voters was praised, as was his ‘new conception of the office which one would hope would use 1916 as an eminence to look out from, rather than as a monument from which stones are to be picked for throwing when better arguments are not available’.
* The Irish Times - A History, by Mark O’Brien, published by the Four Courts Press, 2008, on sale €35. 99