News Analysis

Wednesday 27 August 2014

John Drennan: Michael D was the sweetest option

The perils of a terrible Fianna Fail smell were subdued by the safety of voting for Higgins, writes John Drennan

Published 30/10/2011 | 05:00

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AT the end, the electorate decided the distinguished old public man was the safest bet for the Aras. On one level, we should not be surprised our voters took the safe option --for the ongoing popularity of the not-quite-so-shiny Rainbow government of all the talents proves that we are still inclined to hold the hand of staid old Nurse Kenny, for fear of finding something worse.

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Yet it was by no means a certain thing for, even as late as Monday, Michael D looked like a dying swan. Then, like a lay miracle, a terrible smell of Bertie, Biffo and Fianna Fail began to attach itself to Sean Gallagher.

As the one party that was not at the feast took over the public discourse, it was weird to see ghosts of Fianna Fail's past dominating the skyline.

It was not the only odd thing in our Bohemian Rhapsody of a presidential race which left us wondering more than once 'Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?'

It was certainly very real for Martin McGuinness. The fantasy, for some, was that he would come down draped in the snowy white robes of the peace process, enchant us with the stardust of his jet-setting celebrity lifestyle and charm his way into the Park.

For a time it almost worked, as political ground hurlers like Phil Hogan were tutted at by RTE-style, Sancerre-sipping socialists of Sandymount for daring to pick at the sheep's wool that was draped all over Martin.

However, after flattering to deceive, the Sinn Fein/new Fianna Fail hero has left, a somewhat sadder and a hopefully wiser man. Sinn Fein/new Fianna Fail did not have a disastrous election, but the denouement of the race proved that, while Irish political standards are not high, we are not prepared to let some Provo Puss in Boots saunter into the Park without paying an ethical entry fee.

One of the more curious features of the presidential race was the lofty dismissals by the political intelligentsia, particularly when it came to Martin McGuinness, of the worth of the contest because of the role 'character' plays in determining the winner.

In truth we should be far less dismissive of the role of 'character' in politics -- for this is the virtue that decides the fate of nations, or continents for that matter, and the presidential election taught us a great deal about the 'political character' of Fine Gael... and more importantly, of Enda.

Gay Mitchell certainly evolved into Fine Gael's inconvenient truth, for in this campaign he became a living reminder to a party suffering from an overly cultivated sense of entitlement that popularity and electoral success must be continuously earned.

On this occasion, however, nothing epitomised the Fine Gael campaign more than a facile parliamentary party speech by Kenny about how he wanted to see Gay Mitchell travelling down O'Connell St waving at the cheering peasantry in de Valera's old presidential car.

Sadly this flight of rhetoric was collapsed when Mary Mitchell O'Connor promised that "I'll be driving it".

It would certainly not be inaccurate to say that a car driven by Mary Mitchell would be a safer place than Gay Mitchell's campaign. For from the start of the campaign poor Gay was the antithesis of the Seventies character The Six Million Dollar Man.

Though nothing could rebuild him, his fate also -- and this could only occur in an Irish presidential election -- brought the philosophical world view of Rolf Harris's song about 'two little boys had two little toys' to mind.

It ends with the adult version of one little boy saving his dying friend on the battlefield. In contrast, as poor wounded Gay rolled around helplessly on the presidential front, the response of Fine Gael was to strip the cooling corpse of the uniform, rifle his pockets and roll him over towards the enemy, saying 'he's yours, pal'.

The response told us rather more than we might like to know, or he would like us to know, about the political character of Enda Kenny. The Taoiseach has developed quite the reputation for disappearing when there's bad news in the vicinity, or finding a convenient scapegoat for it. That sort of trait is quite harmless when we're talking about Fine Gael leadership squabbles. But it does raise questions as to how Enda behaves behind the closed doors of EU summits. After last week and the EU bailout for Greece, many will now suspect that Enda hides behind the curtains when the big boys come to town.

That petit bourgeois wing of Fine Gael snobs who snickered as they backed away from Mitchell will learn the hard way that success in politics is as much about loyalty and character as ideas.

The election also taught us about the ongoing toxicity of Fianna Fail. For a time it looked as though Gallagher would represent the triumph of the old politics of the heart having what the heart wants, and damn the consequences.

The political lives of Bertie and Haughey show the Irish electorate are fatally attracted to political bad lads, and as Gallagher surged into the lead, not even the sight of a whole nest of Fianna Fail cuckoos from Haughey through to Biffo flying out from behind the candidate could change the views of the electorate.

Like the old Fianna Fail of de Valera, he provided the electorate with a synthetic mix of Celtic mysticism and practicality sugared with sentiment. There was plenty of opportunism too for the spiel by Gallagher about how 'I see heroes everywhere' was a classic example of Fianna Fail's recognition that you will never go too far wrong pandering to the egotism of the electorate.

The problem for Gallagher was the unstoppable slide towards the status of being the new Bertie. It might have been Sean Gallagher looking at you, but as it became increasingly clear that Gallagher stood for nothing decisive, had an uncertain past and unclear future intentions. Increasingly this man looked like the political son of Bertie.

Ironically at the end of the day it was the connection with a Sinn Fein-aligned petrol smuggler rather than the Fianna Fail cuckoos that did it for Gallagher.

He has, however, provided the coalition partners with the inconvenient truth that the stake has not been fully driven through the heart of the Fianna Fail party.

In particular, Gallagher terrorised a Labour party who feared for a long time that Gallagher might do to Higgins what Mary Robinson did to Brian Lenihan in 1991. Like Lenihan, Michael D was running on the fumes of sentiment and his status as a national caricature, but the prospect of putting a relic of old decency into the Park was a thin enough old mix that had seen Michael D stagnating for most of the campaign.

However, there is more to Michael D than poetry and smiling. The resilience of character which he too possesses was epitomised by one vignette during the campaign, where, responding to the popular support, Higgins recalled the liberal stand he took in the Seventies meant "I wasn't always this popular -- in politics you earn your stripes".

It is something Sinn Fein/new Fianna Fail will have to learn too. However, lest anyone be too tranquil about its relatively poor result they should recall the role of McGuinness in finishing off the campaign of Gallagher, who had become a thorn in the side of the Sinn Fein party.

The garrotting of Gallagher by McGuinness on 'The Frontline' was as steely as an assassination of a, oh let us say, a mother of 10 children.

Sinn Fein/new Fianna Fail may on this occasion have failed and it will fail again, but to paraphrase David Norris it will fail better, it won't go away and the day may yet come when it won't fail at all.

As for the Rainbow, we can only hope the shock experienced when the Presidency did not evolve into a genteel lap of honour will remind it that honeymoons do not go on forever. All marriages, particularly political ones, need to be worked at or they end in divorce.

Sunday Independent

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