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I was 'elected' President of Ireland by Joe Duffy's listeners as some citizen was breaking into my car. Weird day.

What a weird afternoon yesterday was. I was at a meeting in the city centre from two to three, and arrived back to my car to discover that some friendly citizen had driven in the passenger window of my car and helped himself to the contents.

It's not one of those things that makes you feel particularly good about your fellow man, to be honest, to find yourself cleaning up broken glass in the middle of a city street.

But while I was doing it, the phone began to hop in my pocket. Over the space of a couple of minutes, I must have got about 20 text messages, from friends and colleagues, all congratulating me on my election as President of Ireland!

At first I thought I was the victim of some elaborate practical joke. But it transpired that Joe Duffy's Liveline programme had just finished conducting a poll, eliminating various candidates to succeed President McAleese when her term ends next year.

After about 10,000 people had phoned in to the programme and eight or nine distinguished people had been eliminated, the show's listeners had decided that I should be given the responsibility.

I'm not often speechless, but something like that forces you to think, doesn't it? I've spent years now campaigning and fighting for people who aren't often listened to.

I get frustrated and angry, at the failure of public policy to respect people who live on the margins of our society. Years of working in the backroom in politics, and nowadays in trying to help people to make a lasting difference in their own lives and the lives of their children, have taught me one lesson above all. People struggle, and they struggle all the more when there is no one to listen to them.

The fact that so many people wanted to phone into Liveline to "cast a vote" in the presidential election suggests that there are a lot of people out there who agree, who are maybe equally frustrated at the way things have gone in our country.

I listened back to the programme last night, and one thing became very clear. Already people are very engaged in this election, even though it's nearly a year and a half away. They want the presidency to make a difference. That's partly because of the respect that recent holders of the office have inspired. But it's also partly, I think, because a presidential election gives us a real chance to debate and discuss the values that mean the most to us and the choices we've been making.

And it's not just values that have come into question in recent years, but even some of the traditional concepts around which we built a community, such as neighbourliness.

Side by side with that, we have the spectacle of priests, bishops, politicians, gardai, doctors, bankers, business people, even some sportspeople -- there has hardly been a profession or form of public life which has not been tarnished.

The discredit into which all forms of authority have fallen in the past 20 years, caused in the main by self-inflicted wounds, has left a deep and so far unfilled vacuum.

Next year's presidential election actually represents a real opportunity to debate all that -- and maybe even to begin to change it. The great thing about yesterday's poll (apart from the winner, naturally) is that it will encourage more and more people to take part in the debate. At the end, the important thing is not who you vote for -- it is to get out, get involved, and start demanding change.


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