independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Lise Hand: Sean's fava beans and Chianti on hold as hopefuls start softly

THE flower-seller on Grafton Street cast an unimpressed eye over the posse of reporters who were quizzing Martin McGuinness at some length (in other words, blocking her stall from paying customers) about the minutiae of his past, present and his possible future as Uachtaran na hEireann.

"Jaysis, they're only short of asking him what colour shite he does," she sniffed in majestic disapproval. "The best of luck to him," she added.

Sadly, her pithy observation went (largely) unheard, for the candidate was striding off looking for hands to shake and the press pack were scattering like a gabbling swarm of Tasmanian Devils to another president-related engagement.

And it was only 11am.

Phew. If this presidential campaign had a theme tune, it surely would be the jolly jingle from 'The Benny Hill Show' which plays to the spectacle of a gang of slightly frenzied folks chasing each other higgledy-piggledy in chaotic circles.

There's never been an Aras race like this one. It's the Aintree Grand National of presidential steeplechases, with a crowded field of runners, fluctuating favourites and the odds-on certainty that someone is going to come a cropper at some Beecher's Brook during the four-week circuit.

And by golly all seven of them galloped out of the starting-gate yesterday morning, as soon as the flag was raised on Day One (it only feels like Day 100 of the campaign due to the extended shenanigans around the nomination process).

Suddenly they're everywhere -- on the streets, up on lamp-posts (at least their posters are, though it's early days yet) and on the airwaves. Simultaneously David Norris was on Radio One talking to Pat Kenny and tying himself in a knot of Gordian proportions over the 'clemency' letters, while Martin McGuinness was on Today FM with Ray Darcy, wishing he had read his cog-notes on the national parliament. (At least he now knows that there are 166 TDs in the Dail, not 168, and that the Environment Minister is called Phil Hogan).

And before the morning was out, there was even a bells-and-whistles -- or strings and bows, more like -- campaign launch.

Michael D Higgins swept into the College of Physicians at 11.30am to the posh aural backdrop of the Young European String chamber Orchestra in full flight.

And to emphasise that David Norris isn't the only candidate with a flair for the dramatic, Michael had invited along actor Tom Hickey, award-winning costume designer Joan Bergin and Mary Coughlan (singer as opposed to ex-Tanaiste, of course) to cheer him on.

It was a slick affair altogether. There were paeans of praise from party leader and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore who hailed Michael D as "a candidate of unity" (presumably as opposed to the Marmite Candidates like Martin and David who are either roundly liked or disliked by their supporters/detractors).

And Michael delivered a polished speech that was 10 minutes long -- a mere haiku to a man renowned for his fondness for perorations -- earning himself a standing ovation from the roomful of party members and supporters.

Then it was out to Montrose for the first of a series of head-to-head-to-head-to -- oh, never mind -- debates. And the candidates were starting in the lion's den, throwing themselves at the tender mercies of Sean O'Rourke, an inquisitor who regularly feasts on quivering politicians, washed down with fava beans and a nice Chianti.

They all rolled up, each urged to wave to cameras by the gaggle of photographers. Some have definitely been practising the presidential wave in front of the mirror, such as Sean Gallagher, Martin and David.

But Mary and Gay have some work to do.

Perhaps it was simply because it was the opening set-to between them all, but the hour-long debate saw no daggers leaving scabbards or feet placed on banana-skins.

There was a bit of sniping, such as Gay Mitchell's comment that "Dana grew up on the streets of Derry and didn't join the IRA." There was also the odd bizarre boast: "I'm sure I'm the only candidate to have ever had their own herd number," reckoned Sean quite correctly. And David Norris suddenly broke into another language: "I can speak Hebrew," he explained. (That'll be useful when he opens the Ploughing championships next year). Michael D trumped that by switching to Gaeilge. "This is now a trilingual programme," declared Sean O'Rourke.

Dana was confident that when it came to carrying out her presidential duties she "could learn on the job".

But woe betide anyone who threw the wrong shapes. After a shameless litany of name-dropping by Martin McGuinness, Sean silenced him with a snorted: "Sure we've all had our picture taken with Nelson Mandela."

And David's plea that he had answered the previous night's questions on the letters controversy that threatens to dog his campaign was met with short shrift.

"You did not -- you ran like a scalded cat from the media outside Dublin Castle. You made a statement and you scarpered," Sean retorted to the spluttering senator.

How about Sean O'Rourke for president? Is it too late, d'you think?

Irish Independent

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