DUBLIN — Scroll back to 2004.
Little Ireland was in its pomp. Delirious on the heady fumes of an emerging property boom, the focus was squarely on party politics and our portly economy. The Fianna Fáil star was its brightest, wowing the world with flash statistics about growth and unemployment. The frenzy to clamber aboard the gravy train was so great that our political servants didn’t even notice that the Irish presidency was up for grabs.
But don’t they know it now?
Yes, now that the money has dried up and Dáil Éireann has become the political equivalent of an Irish famine workhouse, the stately grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin are starting to looking a whole lot more appealing. Hard luck on the Áras though. It did well enough under Mary McAleese — a barrister and professor from Belfast who had a long-standing interest in the presidency and a respectable moral agenda for the duration of its term.
McAleese has done a lot to help engineer peace in Northern Ireland and her role in Queen Elizabeth II’s recent historic visit will be considered one of the finest achievements in the story Irish political and diplomatic affairs. She’s a tough act to follow when you look at it like that and the changing list of likely candidates is far from inspiring. It’s a drab arrangement of spent political journeymen and the battle for nomination has been, at times, so desperate and controversial that the seat of the presidency has already been cheapened by it.
Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell, a man with all personality and charm of wet cardboard, decided to grace Irish public life again after skipping off to Europe in 2004 to do what? We’re not really sure. Right now it looks to be a two-horse race between Mitchell and Labour’s wispy-haired poet, Michael D. Higgins. It’s not the most exciting shortlist.
The nation seems to be in a state of utter deflation after a ruthless character assassination that saw popular senator David Norris shunted away from the ballot paper. Norris, a human rights veteran, was a sure bet for the Áras and his probable election wouldn’t have hurt our reputation for being a socially progressive country any more than Mary Robinson’s election did back in1990. Alas for Norris, it would appear that to be a gay politician in Ireland is to be a de facto pedophile. Never mind his sparkling record in the senate, his enthusiasm and conviction for a system that many have lost faith in, and his honest criticisms of the neutered function of the Seanad (senate).
No. This man is gay. We must dig deeper. There is surely some speck of dirt, some error in judgement, that we can sink his ship with.
Gay Mitchell described abortion as a ‘holocaust’ and bemoaned the reality of Irish women “sneaking off” to have abortions in the UK. He wrote a letter of clemency for convicted murderer and anti-abortionist Rev. Paul Hill, who is on death row in the US. But David Norris’ plea for leniency for a former partner who’d had consensual sex with a Palestinian minor (statutory rape) was a most grievous offense and for many of his antagonists, this 14-year-old piece of paper was all the proof they needed that he was some kind of sexual predator. It’s a bit of a flimsy argument in a country that, over the years, has become a veritable petri dish for colonies of shady politicians and robed pedophiles.
The wheels came off Norris’ campaign and he was forced to step down eventually. Since then, the election race has descended into anarchy and farce. Instead of looking for people who have the credentials to do the job, various ‘personalities’ have been put forward. Fianna Fáil, pushing hard to restore its blackened reputation after 15 years of economic misconduct, saw in the avuncular broadcaster Gay Byrne—now 77—a handy route back onto the political ladder. Byrne was almost physically inserted into Phoenix Park by politicians and media alike before he eventually took himself out of the equation.
The celebrity vacuum was quickly filled by recently retired sports commentator and former schoolteacher Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh who, at the time of writing this, was still mulling it over. Michael Sheen—yes, that’s President Bartlett from The West Wing—recently said “thanks but no”. So who’s next? Daniel Day-Lewis? Pierce Brosnan? Is it too soon to ask Saoirse Ronan? Brenda Gleeson gave a speech of presidential quality at College Green some months back. Maybe he should do it? While we’re at it, why don’t we just rename it Celebrity President 2011 and let people vote by phone or text via a 1550 number?
To be President of Ireland is to be the face of the country. The most obvious mission for the next President must be to repair the damage done to our reputation by years of fiscal stupidity, but the scramble for Áras an Uachtaráin is beginning to have a negative effect.
Seven years ago, this public office was overlooked—even belittled—by the country’s salivating politicos and McAleese walked through to her second term uncontested.
But desperate times call for desperate measures and things sure are desperate now. With any luck, the mostly inoffensive Michael D. will take it and the Irish public can just cast this embarrassing circus out of the national psyche and move on.