The independent senator says the main political parties have narrowed down the path to an Áras nomination.
GERARD CRAUGHWELL IS, to say the least, far from happy about what he regards to be a presidential election carve-up between the country’s biggest political parties.
Craughwell, a former teaching union boss who has been a member of the Seanad since 2014, has been increasingly critical in recent months of President Michael D Higgins’ refusal to confirm his intentions on a second term in the Áras.
The former Labour TD finally confirmed on Tuesday last that he would in fact take another tilt at the presidency, as had been widely expected.
That’s in spite of a commitment back in 2011 that he would only seek one term.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have both thrown their backing behind Higgins, making the route to a nomination for any other prospective candidate increasingly difficult. Sinn Féin is to decide this weekend whether it will put forward its own candidate.
Craughwell, who announced his presidential ambitions last year, would need the support of 20 Oireachtas members (TDs or senators) to get on the ballot, but when the larger parties are taken out of consideration there’s a shrinking pool of votes available.
Other senators – notably the former Pieta House CEO Joan Freeman and Aer Arann founder Pádraig Ó’Céidigh – are also pursuing the nomination. As a result, Craughwell says he’s now prioritising an alternative route to the ballot and will attempt to secure the backing of four county councils.
Already two councillors from his native Galway have put down a motion supporting the senator and calling on their colleagues to do the same.
Craughwell is probably best known nationally for his criticism of Higgins and for his nascent presidential bid.
He’s also a prolific user of Twitter – frequently engaging in debates with other social media users, and occasionally engaging in strongly-worded exchanges when challenged, particularly by anonymous accounts.
Craughwell sat down with us for an interview this week to discuss his career, his record, and some of his more controversial pronouncements on social media, in the Seanad and elsewhere.
The HPV vaccine
The senator sparked criticism in 2016 when he called for further debate on the HPV vaccine. The free vaccine is administered to girls of school-going age to protect from their future risk of cervical cancer, as recommended by the WHO.
Speaking this week Craughwell said he had simply asked in the Seanad for a debate on the vaccine, which he described as an “extremely emotive issue”.
“Because I asked for a debate I was immediately branded as anti-vaccine.”
He said he had been subjected to inaccurate and unfair criticism on Twitter as a result of his remarks, and insisted he did not want to stop the vaccine’s rollout.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. Members of my own family have had cancer. I have lost family members just like everybody in this country. Anything that would control that I am in support of.
“But there is a tiny rump of people in this country who claim that they have suffered ill effects as a result of this vaccine and I think rather than trying to shut them up we need to actually address the issue and assist them.
“That has been my position all along. I am not now and never have been anti-vaccine.”
- FactCheck: No, the reported side effects of the HPV vaccine do NOT outweigh the proven benefits >
Craughwell’s recent Eduction (Digital Devices in School) Bill was backed by Education Minister Richard Bruton last month.
The proposed new law could see children hand in their mobile phones at the start of the school day and aims to tackle harassment and cyber-bullying.
The senator has referred to some of his critics, collectively, as ‘clowns’ on social media – and has accused people directly of being bullies and cowards.
We asked whether he regretted his use of such terms – and whether he would be changing his approach to social media in any presidential campaign.
He said he had no reason to apologise for attacking people who refused to reveal their real identities on Twitter – adding:
The one problem we have with social media is we have these anonymous people who can come on and say whatever they want to people like me to people who are prepared to put our name, our face, our career on social media.
He said he thought it was “grossly unfair” for people to hide behind an avatar.
“If somebody is a bully they’re a bully and they need to be called out as a bully – a couple of things I am very strong on, and one of them is bullying. Bullying has cost people their lives in this country.”
It was very easy, he said, “to make comments online without having to face a person face to face.” Everyone needed to take care of their mental health, he said.
“And these people who continue to attack time and time and time again – they are seeking to damage one’s mental health and that is something that we have to learn to control.
“So there is a need, where social media is concerned, for education. And I would love to see a situation where we would treat social media as we would if we met in a public place and had a discussion.”
We asked Craughwell about his use of the terms ‘bully’ and ‘coward’ in his Twitter engagements.
Asked if he agreed that calling someone a bully could itself amount to bullying in some contexts, he responded:
If you’re talking about calling some anonymous individual a bully I don’t see how that can be in any way damaging to that person I don’t see it.
Wherever there is bullying people need to speak out and say ‘this person is a bully, they need to stop’.
Craughwell has also frequently used his Twitter account to encourage people to talk about their mental health and to seek help if they are experiencing bullying.
He said he had taken a more restrained approach to the app in recent months – and often no longer engaged with harsh or unfair tweets.
On the ‘sad end’ to David Drumm’s ‘brilliant career’
Craughwell tweeted that it was “a sad end to what was a brilliant career” in the wake of David Drumm’s conviction last month for for his role in a multi-billion euro bank fraud scheme,
Again, his remark was met with criticism.
Speaking this week, he expanded on that initial observation. The character limit on Twitter may have had something to do with the response, he said.
“I remember the day David Drumm was appointed CEO of Anglo Irish Bank,” he said.
“First of all it took the entire financial world by surprise. He wasn’t the one everyone expected. He was young. He was after coming back from Boston. He had a high flying career.
“If you were his father, his sister, his brother, his wife, you would think ‘God he has made it – what a fantastic job he has done’.”
No-one foresaw what was to come, he said.
“So yes I can understand he had a brilliant career and yes I do think it was a terribly sad end – that greed from those few people at the top to feather their own nest.
I can’t even begin to imagine what his family might feel looking at him in Mountjoy jail today when once he was lauded in all of the best restaurants in Dublin and all of the best boardrooms in Dublin. What a sad end.
The Galway politician had a varied career before joining the Seanad four years ago. After spending the early part of his career in the military, he eventually went back to college and earned qualifications in economics and computing before becoming a teacher in the 1990s.
He worked in Dun Laoghaire Senior College until a few years ago and led the TUI, which represents second- and third-level teachers, from 2012 to 2014.
He was not expected to win his Oireachtas seat. Backing from Sinn Féin got him over the line against the embattled Fine Gael candidate John McNulty, after Sinn Féin’s own candidate was eliminated.
Interestingly Craughwell served in both the British and Irish armies. He had initially wanted to join the Irish Defence Forces at the age of 15 but, after his parents refused to sign permission papers, had to settle instead for the Royal Irish Rangers.
His battalion never served in Northern Ireland – but this was the early years of the Troubles, and his time in the force came to a premature end after he and his family were contacted by someone purporting to be from the IRA saying he would be shot.
Craughwell says he’s certain that there will be a presidential election – in spite of the lateness of Higgins’ declaration, which he described as “deeply regrettable”.
“There is no nomination process right now. There cannot be a nomination until the minister issues a writ for the election and I don’t think that’s going to happen before the end of August – possibly the last week of August.
“That then means that somebody has got to go and find 20 names or go and find four county councils while at the same time trying to put a campaign together to have an election on 26 October.”
While he’s by no means certain that he can win, he doesn’t think Michael D Higgins will be returned either. ”Election campaigns change everything,” he insisted.
Even so, he reckons the former Labour minister has performed well in the role.
“I’d be the first person to get out there and say ‘you did a great job’. I qualify that by saying ‘you asked for seven years to do it – your seven years are up’.”
All things going to plan, we asked, would he propose to serve one term or two?
His response: “One term only.”
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