An Irish Trump? He's called Michael O'Leary

The Ryanair boss could sweep to power with help from complacent establishment

Fly him to the moon: Michael O’Leary, “Ireland’s leading altogether decent person”. Photograph: Alan Betson

Fly him to the moon: Michael O’Leary, “Ireland’s leading altogether decent person”. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Could there be an Irish Donald Trump? Yes – bigly. And his name would be Michael O’Leary.

I’m not suggesting that the Ryanair boss wants or plans to take over the State. But he could do it. If he were so inclined, he could create a movement that would have a damn good chance of winning the next election. And this possibility should shake the political system out of its dangerously complacent assumption that Ireland is somehow immune to the reactionary populism now in the ascendant in the Anglo-American world.

O’Leary, if he wanted political power, would start out in a much stronger position than Trump was in two years ago.

First, O’Leary as a person is infinitely more reputable than Trump. He is not a fraudster or a sex pest. He pays his taxes – and, unlike many of his peers, he pays them in Ireland. He is a vastly more successful businessman than Trump. He hasn’t repeatedly gone into bankruptcy and stiffed his creditors. He has built a huge international company that makes steady profits for its shareholders, not just for himself.  

Second, O’Leary was Trump long before Trump. The reality TV star became president-elect by manipulating the media into giving him vast amounts of free publicity while his rivals were spending fortunes on advertising. Remind you of anyone?

O’Leary is an instinctive marketing genius who understood a long time ago that you didn’t need ad agencies and expensive TV slots. You could (a) gather some journalists, (b) open your big mouth, (c) says something outrageous, and (d) do it all again when the consequent floods of publicity had finally receded. O’Leary long ago did to Aer Lingus and British Airways what Trump has just done to Hillary Clinton.

That fake jacks outrage

Remember, for example, Ryanair charging for the use of toilets on its planes? Of course you do. But just in case, here’s a “news story” from the Daily Mail of April 6th, 2010: “Ryanair has confirmed that it is pushing ahead with its controversial scheme to charge passengers for use of toilets on its aircraft, meaning spending a penny on a flight will soon cost as much as a pound.”

O’Leary got about two years out of that piece of fake news, a concept he pioneered. And it is the exact equivalent of Trump’s “plan” to build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it. Each has precisely the same amount of truth content: zero. But truth is entirely beside the point – it’s a vividly simple image, it is luridly outrageous, and it makes a viral online story.

Third, O’Leary has a serious fan base among the kind of unhappy men who were such a crucial core constituency for Trump. You would be surprised how many men mentally pleasure themselves while fantasising about Michael. He is the bad boy they thought they were going to be in their teens, before they became solicitors or actuaries. O’Leary in his rugby shirt is as sexy to them as the young Brando in his biker jacket. He is the Wild One of the executive classes.

Fourth, O’Leary can play on the masochism of a complacent political establishment. It is interesting to watch him at the moment: he is certainly testing the rhetorical waters, seeing how much media capital he can get from spouting any old idiocy. (The answer, of course, is a hell of a lot.)

What’s more interesting is that it is Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael giving him the platform. A Fianna Fáil TD, Robert Troy, organised the meeting last week at which O’Leary, doing the full Donald, called the Dáil the “worst assembly of halfwits and lunatics”, The Irish Times  “Pravda”, and the management of RTÉ “left-wing communists”.

Fine Gael, meanwhile, sponsored O’Leary’s rant last month. Three senior Ministers sat by while he called RTÉ a “rat-infested North Korean union shop” and accused Ingrid Miley of “spewing” out Trotskyite propaganda because she reports on industrial disputes. The country’s Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, hailed O’Leary at that event as “Ireland’s leading altogether decent person”.

So far as we know, none of these Ministers or TDs objected to O’Leary’s denigration of the elected parliament or McCarthyite Red Scare smears against public broadcasters. They’re naively hoping a bit of his bad boy glamour will rub off on them.

Fuel for the seething masses

O’Leary’s anti-communist hysteria is weirdly retro. But remember: he’s simply trying out a political, post-truth equivalent of charging for the toilets. It doesn’t need to have any reality. And he has the bones of a much more serious agenda – sack half the civil service, ban unions in the public sector, slash all taxes and business regulations, privatise all public services and assets, abolish the welfare state, make Ireland the new Hong Kong or Singapore.

Throw in some grand promises, such as scrapping mortgage debt for those in negative equity, and you have a high-octane fuel to take middle-class resentment into the electoral orbit.

Michael O’Leary would have a great chance of taking power as the person to deliver what he likes to call “strong government”. The only thing that could stop him would be a serious, coherent social democratic alternative. Otherwise, Ireland is wide open for a talented demagogue.  

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