Jim Carroll

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The rocky road to the Áras

No-one said getting to be president of this great little country was ever going to be easy. Of course, it was different back in the day when seven years in the Park was seen as a reward for being a …

Mon, Jun 13, 2011, 09:44


No-one said getting to be president of this great little country was ever going to be easy. Of course, it was different back in the day when seven years in the Park was seen as a reward for being a good ol’ boy. The 1990 victory of Mary Robinson changed the game and now, the presidental gig is something else entirely. The problem is defining what that “something else” is, especially as most of the definitions don’t appear to chime with the job description you’ll find in this little document.

If you ask any of those currently hoping to be revamping the soft furnishings in the former Viceregal Lodge by the end of the year why they’re going for the job, you’ll get a plethora of different answers. The job of president may be largely ceremonial – meeting and greeting your foreign peers, occasional outbursts of ribbon-cutting, much tea-drinking and the provision of soothing, dignified words for the nation when the need arises – but every would-be Prez has a different handle on what the job would mean beyond these rituals.

In the last week, we’ve had flowery language from Gay Mitchell on how reaching the Áras would mean he could gaze at the floodlights of the C.I.E. Works across the park (no sign of that particular wish fulfillment in the Bunreacht). Then, we’ve had David Norris saying he has been acting presidental since March 14 so he can live up to the high standards of the office. That was a Monday, by the way.

Those boyos are not the only ones with lofty hopes for the Park. We’ve seen prospective campaigns revving up on the runway from – take a deep breath - Pat Cox (provided he can get the Fine Gael lads and lasses on side), Mairead McGuinness (a third European parliamentarian yearning to come home and be clutched to Fine Gael’s collective bosom), Mary Davis (the lady behind the hugely successful Special Olympics event in Ireland in 2003 has an eye on making it three Marys in a row), Niall O’Dowd (Yankee-Irish publisher looking for a change of scenary) and Sean Gallagher (one of the businessmen from the Dragons’ Den TV show).

We will know next week if the Labour Party are throwing their weight behind Michael D Higgins (the party’s grand old man has been prepping for this role for years), Fergus Finlay (dude needs to update his Twitter page) or Kathleen O’Meara. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and the Green Party to give someone the thumbs up so we can also make snarky comments about them.

While it looks like a crowded field at the moment, many of the above won’t make it to the starting line. There can only be one Fine Gael candidate, for example, and it will be quite remarkable if more than one independent gets the required endorsements from county councils and non-party TDs and senators. In addition, given that there have been grumbles about the cost of the campaign, it remains to be seen if Fianna Fail will actually run anyone, even if Brian Crowley is gagging for a chance (he did, after all, kick off his campaign on the Saturday Night with Miriam TV show back in 2009). FF could, of course, co-opt a would-be Prez from that list of indies above or, like they did in 1997, throw a Mary McAleese into the mix with a few weeks to go. They could also sit it out, though we’d probably miss them. By the way, there is still time for someone to green-light OTR’s bright idea for a TV show based on a celebrity race for the Áras.

Even though all the would-bes, wanna-bes and may-bes listed above are eagerly parading their credentials for the job, one candidate above all has been hogging the headlines. This is Senator David Norris, a man whose campaign for the park has been on the tracks for longer than anyone else. In the last few weeks, though, Norris has seen some old interviews of his (one from Magill from 2002 and one from the Daily Mail last year) dusted off, republished and re-examined, leading to much media coverage of the senator and his views on a wide range of social issues.

This coverage has lead to a lot of shouting about conspiracy theories from all sides: one theory has it that the media haven’t been doing enough about the matters raised in these interviews, while another theory is that there’s some sneaky black ops behind these interviews re-appearing at this time. Neither theory seems to acknowledge or remark that Norris actually did these interviews in the first place and, in response to questions posed by journalists, made those remarks and expressed those opinions. The words are his, the opinions are his. What is strange is that he and his campaign team didn’t realise that such interviews are always likely to be revisited in the context of a race like this. You can bet your bottom dollar that interested parties (or “sneaky black ops”, who I imagine to be a bit like Stephen Rea’s character Gatehouse in The Shadow Line) will be combing through the past words and opinions of whoever gets to suit up for Fine Gael and Labour too. Nasty, underhand and undignified to be sure – but this is politics, not a game of croquet.

Norris became incredinly tangled up in his own prose on the back of having to explain himself, leaving the one brilliant line, “you are not running for election in ancient Greece, you are running for election in modern Ireland”, to be uttered by Aine Lawlor during her interview with him on Morning Ireland the other day. As it has rumbled on, Norrisgate has featured shout-outs for ancient Greece, Plato, Socrates and pederasty. These are, you will admit, not the normal stuff of a pitch to win the hearts and minds of the Irish people who eat their dinner in the middle of the day. We assume, though, that other candidates will have to tell us their views on pederasty now that it’s become a campaign issue in the Race for the Áras 2011.

Can Norris survive this refocus on opinions aired before he decided to become all presidental on March 14? In his analysis in Saturday’s paper, Harry McGee pointed to the fact that even though Norris has a “well-organised and professional campaign” who’ve been in the field for quite some time, he’s still up against it when it comes to the getting the necessary nods to get a place on the ticket. But even if he does make the cut, it remains to be seen if Norris can really take the country by the scruff of the neck and persuade the masses to vote for him. Is he what the Irish people want in a president? Actually, what do the Irish people want from a president (surely not another woman called Mary)? Do we even need a prez?

Remember that while the candidate might well be the number one choice for those in and around the liberal beltways to represent them in the Áras, it’s a different game beyond these particular constituencies. The campaign will get dirty if there is a momentum behind Norris, with rival camps pushing as many alarm buttons about him as they think they can get away with. When the going gets tough and the mood music changes, we may find out that Ireland is not the tolerant, liberal, bigot-free place some of us think it is.

The other factor which will have an even greater bearing is who else will be on the ballot paper and especially how they’ll pitch themselves to the electorate. It’s all very well to hone in on the Norris campaign, but we don’t have a clue who he’ll be competing with and what they’ll bring to the table which is why there is so much focus on him. It may well feel as if this race has been going on for yonks, but the fun and games are only just about to begin.