Tuesday 15 October 2019

You light a candle, I'll kick the Travellers

The superficiality and the sordid antics of last week raise questions as to why we're having this election, writes Gene Kerrigan

This is the second time Peter Casey ran for public office. The first time, he was thoroughly humiliated by his pathetic vote. And a candidate with a Traveller background topped the poll.

That must have hurt. Possibly, we might understand Peter's hurt if we stand back a bit and see the big picture.

Why do we have a president?

Well, two reasons.

First, we regularly need to send abroad a single figurehead who'll represent us and impress the neighbours.

We want a figurehead who'll make the neighbours say: "Hey, she seems thoughtful and articulate, I think I like the Irish. And I may go there on holiday. Or invest there. Or vote for them in the Eurovision."

What we don't need is a figurehead who prompts people to think: "Jayzus, I hope the rest of them aren't like that."

Second reason for having a president - constitutional duties. There aren't many but they can have serious consequences. So, we want someone intelligent and impartial, who doesn't make decisions on impulse.

And that's the main function of the election campaign - to give us a look at the candidates, under pressure. We want a presentable, interesting, intelligent individual.

So, how are they doing so far? (Sighs, rolls eyes.)

For me, the six candidates break down neatly into two types: three activists versus three Dragons.

Liadh Ni Riada, Joan Freeman and Michael D Higgins have all been activists on political and/or social issues. They speak fluently on the major controversies of the day.

They've thought about the world in which we live, and they've come to conclusions - some of which you might or might not agree with.

What about the Dragons?

Sean Gallagher, Gavin Duffy and Peter Casey have a different record - they're running on their TV celebrity and on the fact that they've run businesses.

Ni Riada's job is to solidify the Sinn Fein image. She hasn't made any major missteps, she's articulate and intelligent, she could do the job, but I doubt if anyone thought, "Wow, I can't wait to hear her address the Oireachtas as president".

If the Sinn Fein message is, "We can be as dull and mainstream as Fianna Fail, with a cupla focal into the bargain", it's coming over loud and clear.

Joan Freeman deserves our attention because of her work in shoring the defences against the epidemic of suicide. She's a serious person.

The fact she voted against repealing the Eighth Amendment seemed to convince Pat Kenny she might not be qualified to represent the Irish people, because 66pc voted the other way.

Wow. Remember how Mary Robinson couldn't represent us in 1990, because in 1983 she was on the losing side when 66pc voted for the Abortion Amendment?

As someone who voted against the amendment in 1983 and for repeal last May, I think there are some strange ideas going around, these days.

On the down side, Freeman's performance in a radio debate, where she was asked about the constitutional role of the president, was woeful. Look it up. Or don't, it's embarrassing. She hasn't done her homework.


We have a tradition of not contesting a presidential incumbent's second term. Only once before in the history of the presidency has an incumbent been challenged: in 1966, when hatred of De Valera, lingering from the Civil War, provoked Fine Gael into opposing him. They lost.

There's a reason incumbents have not been challenged.

The first term shows if they can do the job. If they can, we have someone capable in place. An election can't improve things, but it might make them worse.

Even those who want to kick Higgins out admit he's done a fine job. But some people fetishise voting, as though the vote itself matters, separate from its democratic function. So, we've had the slop-fight.

How are the Dragons doing?

Sean Gallagher hasn't quite got over losing in 2011. This time, though, no one's mentioned his Fianna Fail past, as though they don't want to upset him. But, he seems on edge, over-rehearsed, terrified of making a wrong move. His pitch on RTE might have been a spoof by Mario Rosenstock: "We wear our county colours and our country's smile... a candle in the window lit a fire in our heart, we built bridges..."

Dear God, won't someone take this man aside and see if he's all right?

Gavin Duffy is the least eccentric of the Dragons, apart from the dodgy driving offences, which went on until he was 33.

What sets him and Gallagher apart is what they insist on calling their "skill set".

This has something to do with business (all a bit vague, lacking detail) and their appearances on Dragons' Den.

The Dragons' Den "skill set" involves looking interested as some poor chap explains how he attached his nephew's fishing reel to his auntie's sewing machine, and he's invented a device that flosses your teeth twice as efficiently in half the time.

And he wants you to invest so he can hire someone to design a label for the box the device will come in.

As a Dragon, your "skill set" requires you to guess if there are enough eejits who'll buy this device. And how much of his company you might screw out of him in return for investing your scratch-cards winnings (€45, plus four free cards).

Or should you entertain the viewers by crushing his dreams?

As a group, the three Dragons represent corporate Ireland, the Lads of Substance Who Believe They Know How to Fix What's Wrong With This Country.

None more so than Peter Casey, who always looks as though half his mind is on whether his next shot needs a five-wood or a two-iron.

Every second barstool in any golf club has a bore who knows How to Fix What's Wrong With This Country.

Unlike Gallagher and Duffy, Peter is specific. "My platform," says Peter, "is to connect the Irish abroad with the Irish here in Ireland - we've got the most incredible technology now that can do that."

He sounded like a grandad who's discovered Skype. Someone ought to blow his mind and tell him about WhatsApp.

In 2015, Peter wanted to be a TD, so he could Fix What's Wrong With This Country. It didn't work out.

In 2016, Ibec nominated him for the Industrial and Commercial panel of the Seanad. He canvassed councillors throughout the country. He had a top PR outfit. As a TV celebrity millionaire, he was interviewed by national media, an exposure few candidates get. He was clearly going places.

He got a miserable 13 votes and was eliminated on the first count. He finished up 31st of 37 candidates.

Sinn Fein's Padraig Mac Lochlainn topped the poll for the panel, with 114 votes. He was elected on the first count. Mac Lochlainn's mother was a Traveller.

Now, Peter's decided we might listen to him if he becomes president.

He's got the cash, he's got the need. He's got the PR firm.

The first poll said he was on 1pc. The second said 2pc.

So, unprompted, Peter attacked the Travellers. Social media lit up. The anonymously inadequate who venerate the rich and kick the vulnerable had found their presidential spokesperson.

With a blithe disregard of facts, he lashes out, denying racism. He weeps that he wants to be president only because he promised his mother. He's 61.

Seriously, though, hands off that flossing device. I'm pitching it in episode three of the next series.

See you then, Gavin.

Sunday Independent

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