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James Downey: A move away from usual candidates is a good bet


A BROWSE through the odds offered by Paddy Power on the general election results tells you at least one thing you already knew.

The generosity of bookmakers is boundless, especially when it comes to unusual propositions.

At the races, you can usually get something half decent at 6/4. Not so the runners in the biggest race of all. To back Enda Kenny to hold his Dail seat, for example, you have to stake €150 to win €1.

Candidates whom the bookies clearly consider certain losers still appear in the lists at odds on.

That doesn't make the game entirely hopeless. As in any other field of life, and especially any field of gambling, knowledge of pedigree and form counts for almost as much as the arithmetic.

Even then, though, you have to take great care. It's entirely possible that when it comes to the last seat in Cork South West, you know, or a wise friend knows, more than Paddy Power. But it's far more likely that Paddy Power knows more than you or any of your friends.

So I didn't look through this list in the hope of spotting somewhere that I had access to superior knowledge. I wanted to see to what extent the bookies' odds -- which, mock as we will, are usually spot on -- reflect the conventional wisdom.

The answer is, very closely.

That applies to the individual seats when you regard the figures as hypothetical and not real propositions. It applies in possibly a more practical way to the seat "spreads" for Fianna Fail. The narrowest odds are 4/1 on 26 to 30, 9/4 on 31 to 35, and 3/1 on 36 to 40. These strike me as reasonable prices.

Next, I looked up the celebrity candidates, a group sadly depleted by the abandonment of the campaign by the Democracy Now movement on the curious grounds that the timetable didn't suit.

Defining the term celebrity is troublesome. The odd appearance on television doesn't make you a celebrity. George Lee was a celebrity before and after his ill-advised dipping of one toe in the political water. But is Paul Sommerville a celebrity?

By the same token, what on earth is a public intellectual? I suppose the Provost of Trinity is an intellectual by definition. But what would turn him from a mere private intellectual into a public one?

No use searching for clues in the Paddy Power document, which is profoundly unhelpful.

The above-mentioned Paul Sommerville is contesting the election as an independent candidate in Dublin South East, a four-seat constituency. He stands sixth in the betting order at 5/2. That doesn't sound too good.

In assessing the neighbouring five-seat Dublin South, the Paddy Power people have really let themselves go. No fewer than seven candidates are odds-on, two of them at a daunting 1/40 (Alan Shatter and Alex White).

Dublin South, as befits its status as the most affluent constituency, has two celebrity candidates. Shane Ross (Independent) is at 1/9, and Peter Mathews (Fine Gael) at 11/4.

Why this remarkable gap? Everybody has seen all three on television: Sommerville, Ross and Mathews. Most people will have thought them very sensible, and very knowledgeable about money.

Ross has obvious advantages in his Seanad membership and his 'Sunday Independent' column. In the latter, he has campaigned for many years against abuses like boardroom cronyism.

But that hardly accounts for such a massive gap in their standing. After all, Mathews is a banking expert. One might have thought that at this time, of all times, we could do with a banking expert in the Dail.

And that, of course, brings to mind an age-old question which was never more relevant. Who do we want to represent us? The cream of the crop? Experts on everything? (At one time, the idea of deputies with doctorates was ridiculed.) Or a cross-section of the population, not necessarily very bright but sound as a bell, good in a crisis?

The truth is that we are represented neither by the brilliant nor the average but by a uniquely Irish gene pool.

Look at the Paddy Power list (or look at the full list of candidates published here on Thursday morning) and you will see the same kind of backgrounds popping up again and again.

The country finds itself plunged into a unique emergency, but nothing has yet disturbed the tranquillity of the system. It is not entirely dynastic. A young man or woman without any family political background can break in.

Usually, though not always, he has to do it the hard way, through years of voluntary work, council meetings and similar slogging. By the time he contests a general election, he is indistinguishable from the retiring deputy's son or daughter -- though he still has a fight on his hands in that quarter.

In these lists, you will see a clear majority with that stamp on them. The older ones have grown entirely incapable of independent thought. Younger ones will follow in due course.

In among them, to be sure, are sprinkled a few valiant campaigners in various good causes. Their fate can be harsh. Any one of them who wins a seat will usually endure one term of misery and powerlessness, and no more. That is not simply the fault of the party system. It is a key part of the decay of our democracy.

Would it be any better if we elected a few celebrities? Yes, but not because they are celebrities, or even because they are experts. Because they are different. There are still nearly two weeks to go in this campaign. It isn't too late for us non-celebrities to insist on discussing these things.

Irish Independent