• -
  • irishtimes.com - Posted: May 7, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    Celebrity politicians

    Harry McGee


    The idea of a celebrity is fairly loosely defined in the modern context.

    I opened the pages of the Evening Herald yesterday to see a photograph of a wedding of a TV3 ‘personality’ of whom I had never heard. It promised a full follow-up splash feature in the next edition of VIP magazine. I for one will be rushing out to my newsagent the moment the magazine lands.

    So widely defined  has it become that celebrities now have their own categories, their own premiership and lower divisions. An A-lister is George Clooney. A Z-lister is somebody who used to be in Fair City or who once made it to the final of some emetic-inducing talent competition. But the vicarious curiosity of people in the lives (and minutae and tittle-tattle and pix)  of others always ensures  a ready market for both Clooney and an over-tanned, over-blond, overbearing wanabee who is fated to be a neverbee.

    And politics has not been immune from that virus. Look at the origins of the spat between Silvio Berlusconi and his wife. One of her original complaints was that he and his advisers were plucking too many glamourous (female) TV personalities to front for his party as candidates. The trick seemed to work because a good few managed to get elected.

    Here, as far as politics is concerned, ‘celebrity’ is defined firstly as somebody who is well known to the public. Seconly, they need to be capable of commanding respect. In other words, it’s not really good when people say it would be inconceivable to imagine them as politicians. That rules out, for example, most members of boy bands and most former piano players on the Late Late Show. And so, in most cases, they tend to be one of two creatures: either big hitters in the world of business and public affairs or former sportspeople.

    It is surprising to me that so few journalists become candidates in Ireland. If you look at Westminster, dozens of MPs there are former journalist and TV people, including the really impressive Tory frontbencher Michael Gove (who was a fantastic journalist). Here when hacks cross over to the other side, it is usually to practice the dark arts of spin and spittle.  But then, politics is more localised and more personal in Ireland than elsewhere. Few journalists who have a national profile can move back tho their home town, or begin the tedious ground-up exercise that will eventually lead to stardom in the county council and then the Dail. In London, the party will pick you as a candidate and then plonk you into a constituency with which you have no attachment. If they like you enough, a seat will be more or less guaranteed for you.

    The story of the ‘celbrity’ politician in Ireland has been a mixed bag in terms of happy endings.  Early success has often given way to some form of disillusionment and an early exit. And they tend to do better in the more superficial elections like European elections (where, to be honest, the future of the country is not at stake and people in the main cast their vote for domestic rather than for Brussels reasons).

    Mairead McGuinness was the big celeb of 2004 and did exceptionally well. It was helped by the huge success of the Avril versus Mairead rivalry that saw both home. The election was fought 100 per cent on personality. And with her glamour, her journalstic and farming background, Mairead McGuinness was always going to be a sure cert. Yet, she didn’t replicate it in the Dail elections.Very different criteria apply.

    And then there was Orla Guerin, another heavyweight politician. She was the classic parachute candidate and suffered because of it. Her Labour rival Bernie Malone successfully played on the way in which Guerin had been crow-barred onto the ticket by Dick Spring. Guerin also had a very serious disposition unlike the sunny McGuinness.

    But overall parties understand the value of having an instantly recongisable household names, especially for elections that straddle big swathes of the country. You can understand the value, for example, of Fianna Fail landing Packie Bonner or the Aer Arann chair Pádraig Ó Céidigh for North West. Or why Fine Gael chased former GAA president Sean Kelly. Or why the party approached not only George Lee but reportedly George Hook and David McWilliams as well.

    Is there a bit of cynicism in all of it? Is its sole motive in recruiting name candidates in winning a seat or do they genuinely believe they will add value to the party’s stock.

    In his speech at the convention last night (which, by the way, went on forever)  Lee said he had been given no promises. But knowing his preminence and his preeminent sense of self, it could be safely assumed that George will expect his talent and skill to be recognised.

    He’s going to coast home in this election (please read the small print in this blog about the quality of my predictions which may go up or down). But that’s where his difficulties begin. After the election, his profile will fall. An almost daily presence in our lives will become another Fine Gael politician, albeit a relatively prominent one. He’s not going to be the party’s main economic spokesman. He also has to be congnisant that Limerick East TD Kieran O’Donnell has also forged a bit of a reputation in that area. And if Fine Gael get into power, there is no guarantee that George will become a senior minister.

    Others with impressive CVs who have come into Irish politics through the celebrity route have also learned this to their cost. Two prominent people from the world of sport, former rugby intenational Jim Glennon and former Wexford hurling manager Tony Dempsey were both elected in 2002. But both spent their political careers whiling their time on the backbenches. Both became disillusioned and frustrated with what they considered was underutilisation of their time and their talents. And both resigned rather than face into another five years of it.

    George will have to learn to be patient and to temper his expectations. And he will also have to learn – a la Mairead McGuinness – that the novely ofhis candidature will wear off and it will be a different propositon when he is one of three Fine Gael TDs vying to retain their seats in a five-seat constituency.

    • Kynos says:

      VIP and Hello magazines weren’t the first to discover the fascination the masses have for the banal. Sam Beckett did before them and the Nazis before him.

    • An Fear Bolg says:

      Has Enda Kenny made himself redundant by choosing GLee?

      Richard Bruton, surely, could not be deposed by George and it has recently been commented in the IT that Varadkar and Coveney are safe in their portfolios (though I can’t possibly understand why the latter should be safe in anything; he appears constipated whenever he tries to speak and one fears the constipation is of the intellectual variety).

      In the “current climate” we need someone with a firm economic grasp at the top of the pile. Surely this should mean Richard Bruton for leader of FG, with GLee as finance spokesperson/minister?

      By the by, the arrival of George and the ongoing good performance by Richard distracts from the otherwise lightweight FG front bench. With the exception of Varadkar (however distasteful he can be), there are few on the front bench who seem particularly bothered. Old-timers (Shatter et al) appear to expect re-election and ministerial office on the basis of long service. And we’ve had enough of that with FF.

      The arrival of George on the scene can only add to the ongoing speculation about Enda Kenny’s tenure. He might do the party a favour and step down well in advance of the next general election (e.g. now). FG could return the favour on election to government by reinstalling him to his former (and only?) ministerial post – Minister for Bicycle Racing.

    • edel says:

      The reason why anyone with an ounce of intelligence would want to become a “celebrity” is beyond reason. Appear on RTE once and you are on the ladder. I think G. Lee’s apparent intellectual ability, knowledge-base and understanding of the media will be a bonus to our political world. I echo Senator Norris’s sentiments in the Senate yesterday when he said a bit of intellectual weight would be welcome amidst the sons and brothers and cousins of former sports stars and politicians who inhabit the Dail at the moment. George has had the courage to leave his well-paid position and put his money where his mouth is. Good for you George!!!

    • Peter B says:

      Well I’m not sure I agree with the ‘celebrity’ tag, but it’s good to see someone of George Lee’s calibre and intellect entering the political fray. We need more nationally-recognisable politicians with proven track records. Then again, as Inda Kenny said yesteday in the Dail about Mr Cowen – from hero to zero in the space of a year! George Lee will have to tread with more caution than most!

    • Jim Flynn says:

      And what of the most recent poli-celebe, Obama. The press here fell head over heals in love with him, as did most of the folk. With his new tax policy to punish American companies operating in Ireland you would think that there would be a change of opinion…Not so, the IT editorial on his taxing American companies here at 35% was just short of fawning..An exercise in licking the boot that kicks you. How is it lawful for any leader of one nation to dictate to any other nation what their tax policies should be? Hope, change, yada, yada etc…

    • edely says:

      Watch the media coverage of Mr Lee carefully. In today’s Sindo, Lise Hand has a “witty” piece on Lee’s inaugural canvass which ironically only serves to perpetuate the poli-celeb notion. However it is hard not to be seduced by the sight of a fresh face in the political scene. So what Lise, if Ireland has a wee Obama-esque moment. Sneer if you like but a bit of positive public perception of politicians is badly needed to offset the untold damage that certain parties have done not just to the nations coffers but to the image and public perception of Irish politics. Welcome it – give Mr Lee his moment in the sun before the begrudgery returns. Save the wit for Brian, with his hero to zero legacy he will need some amount of journalistic creativity to lend some semblance of dignity to his office term when in comes to an end.

    • Steve K says:

      How is it lawful for any leader of one nation to dictate to any other nation what their tax policies should be? Hope, change, yada, yada etc…

      Jim, in what sense is Obama dictating tax policy to Ireland? He is changing the tax policy for US firms operating overseas and limiting their options.

      You have to be one of the few cases of a person not fooled by “Hope, Change” that is less politically astute than those who are.

    • I don’t think George Lee was a celebrity before he became a candidate for FG in Dublin South – but he’s in danger of being transformed into one now, given the fawning coverage across the media, and on RTE panel talkshows in particular, being devoted to him since his decision to go forward was announced.

      I respect George Lee and his professionalism over the years which saw him stick to his analysis when he was coming under intense pressure from powerful politicians and the weight of public sentiment was against him. If I were a voter in Dublin South I would probably vote for him on that basis.

      However I think that the acres of column inches, from fawners and begrudgers, since his transformation from pundit to politician is nauseating. It’s as if all journalists lived in one parish and one of them was picked to be captain of the county team. The coverage is parochial beyond parody.

      After he’s elected, George Lee will be all over the airwaves – as a politician/pundit – where he will be given a platform for his opinions. He will be a constant on the radio and TV if for no other reason that he lives in close proximity to RTE and other stations (Kieran O’Donnell lives in Limerick) and that makes him convenient panel fodder.

    • Fred Johnston says:

      Well, now that ‘The Late Late Show’ is, effectively, gone as a substantial show, we will be treated to more and more z-list celebrities and instances of RTE interviewing itself. Politics, since it has similarly lost all credence, is merely going the celeb route itself. It is true, though, that Fianna Fáil have by tradition called on the GAA and other ‘grass roots’ organisations to provide them with solid conservative polling stock. Political qualifications are not an issue.

    • Karen Ganley says:

      This is a pretty good article. Very interesting topic. I would like to way in on the subject of Orla Guerin who definitely was a heavyweight politician. I thought she had some very good ideas. I wouldn’t of minded seeing her elected.

    • tom o'connor says:

      I would have (not “of”) minded.

Search Politics