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Novelty and the Áras: All changed, changed utterly...

The prospect of a Dragons' Den alumnus as president reinforces just how much the office has changed since grey men ruled the roost


Shaking hand of Dublin: Alfie Byrne was blocked in his Áras bid by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael

Shaking hand of Dublin: Alfie Byrne was blocked in his Áras bid by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael

Shaking hand of Dublin: Alfie Byrne was blocked in his Áras bid by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael

What does it take to become President of Ireland? In days gone by, that was a no-brainer. You had to be male and to have put in a distinguished record of long service to either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, for which the lucky recipient would be rewarded with seven years or more to shave his golf handicap, schmooze visiting VIPs and travel the world first class.

What does it take to become President of Ireland in 2018? Nobody knows for sure. The nature of the presidency, and of the country itself, has changed utterly since the old mould was smashed with Mary Robinson's seismic win in 1990. Even in the seven years since the last presidential election, Ireland has been transformed. Just think of the unthinkables that have become reality since Michael D entered the Áras in 2011. We've embraced same-sex marriage, legalised abortion, Netflix and so much more.

This week, the Dragons' Den celebrity businessman Gavin Duffy threw his name into the hat for the presidency. One of his former colleagues from the show, Seán Gallagher, is reported to be seeking nominations again, having sprinted ahead as the front-runner in 2011. Another with a declared interest in running is Kevin Sharkey, an artist, fleeting Father Ted character, and participant in the 'reality' TV show Celebrity Farm.

Which brings us to the nub of the matter. Where does the process to select Ireland's president now stand on a sliding scale between the straight divvy-up between our two biggest parties it once was, and the reality show that it seems destined to become? Maybe we won't get a novelty winner this time, but already we're hearing the term "joke candidates" bandied about like never before.

"Joke candidates" might be a judgment too cruel on some, but there is a sound case to be made that some will have not the faintest expectation that they can win the race. Some won't have much expectation that they can even gather the political support to gain a nomination. But that's not the point. As one commentator laid bare this week, it's not about the winning, it's about the taking part. To present yourself as presidential material, to merely place yourself in the orbit of the Áras, is powerful "brand enhancement". Just to be part of the action is a win-win situation.

The bookies are not in the business of getting things wrong, and the bookies will tell you that, despite issues of age, Michael D will most likely stroll back to the park. In addition to the fact that his presidency has been widely admired and approved, he benefits from the Incumbent Effect. The Incumbent Effect has been measured down the decades as a powerful force in Irish politics. It decrees that, all things being equal, the person in situ will be returned in any contest.

We might be less snooty, and less concerned about the gravitas of the presidency, if Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had not connived to capture the post from the outset and turn it into their dismal creature. The only visible link between the Áras and showbiz for decades was when eyebrows were raised in 1959 by retiring president Seán T Ó Ceallaigh. Exiting the park to make way for Éamon de Valera, Ó Ceallaigh took with him as a personal possession a television set which had been gifted by Pye "to the amenities of Áras an Uachtaráin". Left bereft, the staff were not impressed.

The nature of the presidency was decided from the outset by the ruling class. The first Free State government had been pleased to identify themselves as "the most conservative revolutionaries in history" and the Fianna Fáil administration that replaced them were equally comfortable with that label. They were grey men for grey times. Catholic puritans.

If the public had been given a say, this country would probably have had a showbiz president at the first time of asking. Dubbed 'The Lord Mayor of Ireland', Alfie Byrne was as shameless a self-promoter as the most tattooed exhibitionist ever to strut their stuff on Love Island. He was the target of endless parody by Maureen Potter at the Gaiety, where Jimmy O'Dea nicknamed him The Shaking Hand of Dublin.

O'Dea told a joke about a cyclist up in court for failing to signal a turn. The defendant said he'd been afraid to put out his hand in case Byrne shook it. But Byrne was hugely popular and many had him down as a cert for the Áras in 1938. But FG hated the maverick Byrne and FF feared humiliation at his hands. He was blocked, and the Áras would become a retirement home for party hacks.

The past two referenda have witnessed a surge to political empowerment of a new generation. There are new forces at play. Next stop the Áras.

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