Friday 14 December 2018

Colette Browne: After such a vapid campaign, can anyone honestly believe one of the challengers will do a better job than Michael D has?

'Seán Gallagher, who has been unable to offer a credible explanation for his disappearance from public life in the seven years since the last election, has said his qualification for the job is a nebulous “set of skills” – conjuring up Liam Neeson’s famous monologue in the movie ‘Taken’.' Picture: KInlan Photography.
'Seán Gallagher, who has been unable to offer a credible explanation for his disappearance from public life in the seven years since the last election, has said his qualification for the job is a nebulous “set of skills” – conjuring up Liam Neeson’s famous monologue in the movie ‘Taken’.' Picture: KInlan Photography.
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Candidates for the presidency were supposed to set out their vision for Ireland using soaring language on the national stage, but instead the campaign has descended into a theatre of low farce.

There were those who told us, at the outset of this campaign, that a presidential election was essential to breathe life into our stultifying democracy and stave off the danger of some kind of tyranny emanating from Áras an Uachtaráin.

Quite how our democracy managed to survive for the past 52 years - during which time no incumbent who wanted a second term was ever challenged - was never explained by these champions of suffrage.

So, what do people like Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, who warned the failure to have a contest for an almost exclusively ceremonial role would be "unhealthy" for Irish democracy, have to say now?

Instead of an inspirational national debate, the public has been treated to bitter recrimination, banal platitudes, broken promises and vile invective against marginalised social groups.

It is deeply depressing that the most memorable moment of the campaign, for those assessing it in the future, will be a sustained attack on Travellers by a candidate desperate to boost his poll numbers beyond the margin of error.

Even worse is there are voters out there, so divorced from reality, they believe a community of just 30,000 people who experience a suicide rate six times the national average, an infant mortality rate four times the national average, and a life expectancy 15 years less than the national average, are somehow gaming the system. If they are, I think we can all agree they are doing a very bad job.

Peter Casey may be happy to trade in divisive language, which some mistake for so-called straight-talking, but it is time some real straight-talking - facts and statistics - was injected into the debate.

During the first five years of the recession, no other group in society suffered more than Travellers. Between 2008 and 2013, State spending on Traveller education fell 86pc, spending on accommodation fell 85pc, spending on equality projects fell 76.3pc, spending on Traveller youth projects fell 30pc, and spending on Traveller health projects fell 5.4pc.

These enormous cuts can be compared to an overall reduction in government spending of 4.3pc.

But this reality of a near elimination of State funding for a vulnerable segment of society doesn't fit into the distorted narrative Mr Casey likes to create - a greedy group bleeding the State dry.

Even last year, when funding for Traveller accommodation was restored to €9m, nearly 50pc of that was left untouched. Of 31 local authorities, just seven spent their entire allocation.

If Mr Casey wants to start a debate about Traveller accommodation, perhaps he should start there - the inexplicable inability of local authorities to spend €4.1m of ring-fenced funding despite years of underspend in the area.

While the other candidates have, to their credit, opted not to emulate Mr Casey's Trumpian tactics, the traction he has had from making his bilious remarks speaks to the insipid nature of their campaigns.

Gavin Duffy said he was determined to restore transparency to the office of the President, but then spent almost an entire interview with the 'Sunday Business Post' trying to convince journalist Hugh O'Connell to go off record when asked questions.

Mr Duffy also vowed, at the outset of his campaign, to publish eight to 10 position papers on topics including "State and faith" and social media; to date he has failed to release even one. So, he's already breaking promises and hasn't even been elected.

Seán Gallagher, who has been unable to offer a credible explanation for his disappearance from public life in the seven years since the last election, has said his qualification for the job is a nebulous "set of skills" - conjuring up Liam Neeson's famous monologue in the movie 'Taken'.

While Mr Gallagher has pursued the presidency with the same obsessive determination as Mr Neeson's pursuit of his missing daughter, his campaign has been lacklustre and bland.

Having earlier haughtily refused to take part in debates in which President Michael D Higgins was not also present, it is clear a level of desperation at his low poll numbers has now crept in and he announced yesterday he would take part in tonight's final TV debate on Virgin Media One - despite Mr Higgins' absence.

Joan Freeman, who alone among the other candidates has actually proven herself capable of making a big contribution to public life by setting up suicide prevention charity Pieta House, has been unable to capitalise on this advantage.

Instead, her campaign has been dogged by the controversial business background of the man who loaned her money for her campaign, and her family connections to the Iona Institute, which she should have been able to cast off more easily.

Sinn Féin candidate Liadh Ní Riada, who has spent much of her campaign trying to distance herself from her own party, told the 'Sunday Business Post' she only took home the average industrial wage from her job as MEP - but then appeared unsure of what that was.

For the record, she gets €90,000 gross and €60,000 net from her job as European Parliament member, while the average industrial wage is €38,688.

Ms Ní Riada has also repeatedly criticised President Higgins for failing to address the Oireachtas, saying, if elected, she would do so "as often" as she could to apply pressure to politicians on issues like health and housing.

However, one of the constraints of the office of President is the government can approve the content of any speech by the President to the Houses of the Oireachtas, an inconvenient truth Ms Ní Riada seems happy to ignore.

Michael D Higgins, who has come under sustained attack for unvouched expenses, the use of the Government jet and his limited participation in debates, can at least point to the past seven years of a job well done - an exemplary record acknowledged by all but one of the other candidates.

Further, the true blame for unaudited accounts in the Áras lies in Leinster House with the politicians who exempted the office from FOI and directed funds be assigned in an unreviewable manner.

At the end of an uninspiring and vapid campaign, can anyone honestly believe his competitors, who have abjectly failed to distinguish themselves throughout, would do a better job?

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Irish Independent

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