Kenneth Egan in a long line of ‘celebrity candidates’
Sports, especially GAA, a fertile hunting ground for parties seeking election nominees
In 2009 RTE’s George Lee was chosen as a Fine Gael candidate for the Dáil and won the contest by a landslide. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
For a political party, a celebrity candidate is to an upcoming election, what a flake is to a ‘99 ice cream. You don’t really really need it but, boy, if it’s there it looks a whole lot better.
What ensures election to a representative position? Is it the party? Is the its ideas? Is it the candidate? Well, it’s a combination of all three and where the balance lies will often depend on the election.
In general elections, the power of the party and its policies will predominate. In other elections, where comparably less is at stake, the candidate will matter more. This is especially true of European and presidential elections where name recognition is key and there are no credibility issues surrounding the candidate.
In the course of the presidential elections, the master of the bon mot, RTÉ’s David Davin-Power, put it perfectly when describing why Sean Gallagher of Dragons’ Den fame was performing so well in the polls. “People,” he said, “liked the cut of his jib”. On such superficial instincts can some things turn. But of course that was not the whole story, as the infamous Frontline debate later showed.
The announcement that boxer Kenneth Egan will be standing for Fine Gael in the local elections in Clondalkin is confirmation of a political phenomenon long know to parties. A person with a national profile - even better instantly recognisable from television - may be arriving onto the scene by parachute rather than by shank’s mare. But if one thing is for certain, they will get noticed.
All of the major political parties have resorted to plucking a ‘celebrity’ candidate for a specific election in the past. Now, when it comes to the notion of ‘celebrity’, it is something that has a wide enough definition. It can be a bona fide national star of stage or screen, or (more likely in the Irish context) somebody who has become a household name through sporting endeavour.
Jack Lynch, one of the great Fianna Fáil leader and taoisigh, came in through that very route. When he became a TD in Cork in the 1940s, his claim to fame wasn’t really his political track record, rather the fact that he was a leading player on, and captain if, of the famous Cork hurling team which dominated that era.
In recent years, Fine Gael have been the masters of it and have benefitted electorally from hard-nosed (and cynical) decisions to run people with name recognition (with no real background in the party). It worked wonders for the party in 2004 when it ran Mairéad McGuinness, a RTE TV presenter, in East. The party repeated the trick in the Dublin South by-election in 2009 when RTE’s George Lee was chosen at its candidate and won the contest by a landslide.
There can be nasty side-effects associated with such remedies. Within a year George had exited complaining that the party had done little to use his economic skills, but had been content to push him out around the country like a performing “show pony”.
The George Lee experience didn’t really deter the party. In 2011 Fine Gael won a seat in Dublin South with banking expert and media commentator Peter Mathews (he lost the party whip during the abortion debate last year). It has mined the GAA for candidates with very good results. Its Ireland South MEP Seán Kelly is a former president of the association. It also had success in electing as TDs in 2011 two well-known county GAA managers, John O’Mahony from Mayo and Peter Fitzpatrick from Louth. Jimmy Deenihan was first elected for the party on the back of his huge success as a Kerry footballer in the 1970s.
Fianna Fáil has not been immune from the GAA and rugby route over the years. Former Wexford hurling manager Tony Dempsey served one term as a TD for the party, and the former rugby international Jim Glennon was elected as a TD for the party in Dublin North (though he was always politically active).
The party did not run a candidate in the last presidential election but it did enter into protracted and serious negotiations with Gay Byrne, as big a personality as there is in the Irish firmament.
Labour has been less involved in dabbling in this area. During Dick Spring’s time as leader, the part chose Orla Guerin (now a BBC correspondent, then an RTÉ reporter) as its candidate in Dublin much to the chagrin of the sitting (replacement) MEP Bernie Malone. The incumbent fought a successful rearguard action against the interloper.
You will find that many people with a national profile have been approached by one political party or another (usually Fine Gael) to stand for them. They include the likes of George Hook and David McWilliams. Dana Rosemary Scallon’s fame as a singer and TV star certainly did her no harm when contesting presidential and European elections in the past.
The trick doesn’t always work. Fine Gael selected the prominent businessman Brody Sweeney (of O’Brien’s Sandwich Bars) as a candidate in Dublin North East in the run-up to the 2007 election. However, his Fine Gael colleague on the ticket was a local councillor, Terence Flanagan, who put in a prodigious and unrelenting canvassing campaign for many months. Sweeney put in a strong campaign too, but it wasn’t enough. In the end, it was that ground war that prevailed, showing that celebrity by itself is never enough.
For Kenneth Egan, given his profile, and given the admiration in which he is held in the west Dublin suburb, it will be a major surprise if he fails to get elected.
We will have to see then if he has the makings of a politician....