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.