Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

The art of acting presidential

You’d miss the traditional silly season. Once upon a time, August was a month when nothing happened so we made up stuff to pass the time, fill the pages and occupy the radio hours. It was great fun altogether and …

Wed, Aug 17, 2011, 09:56


You’d miss the traditional silly season. Once upon a time, August was a month when nothing happened so we made up stuff to pass the time, fill the pages and occupy the radio hours. It was great fun altogether and then, September would come and we’d go back to business as usual.

But there is no need for such fripperies this year. Riots in the UK, Eurozone turbulence, continuing unhappiness in the markets: this has been an august month in every hard news’ sense of the word. Perhaps it’s because the financial world’s A teams are on bucket-and-spade holidays with their families in the Hamptons, Tuscany or Courtown leaving junior numpties in charge of the desk, but August is no longer much of a silly season because real stuff happens which can’t be ignored.

However, there is one exception to this rule and that’s the continuing presidential palaver in this little country which has a strong silly season odour to it at present. I bet Ben Frew, David McRedmond and the lads in TV3 are bucking that they didn’t take up our TV show idea last year. After all, there’s nothing in the pitch for Celebrity Áras which sounds far-fetched given what’s currently happening.

Last week, Gay Byrne declared an interest in stepping into the race for the Park and, after his family probably told him to quit that aul’ nonsense and go back to washing his car, stepped back out again. This week, it’s venerable retired RTE GAA’ broadcaster and man of many flowery words Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh who is sniffing the air with a view to taking a walk. Next week, it will probably be the turn of another former RTE name (our money is on Brendan Balfe or Val Joyce) to take their turn talking to Aine Lawlor or Claire Byrne. It’s a good job for the prospective celebrity candidates that Sean O’Rourke is on his holidays. And we thought that the days of sticking a retired old duffer into the job were over?

The presidential campaign does seem to have accidentally become a reality TV show. Even David Norris seemed to acknowledge this, with his final campaign speech outside his Dublin home talking about “great journeys”, staple jargon for any reality TV show contestant. But surely we, the plain people of Ireland, can see this for the aul’ sideshow it has become. We can see it for a distracting sideshow, right?

There is certainly a mood afoot for a non-political president to tie in with our alleged collective desire for widespread reform and all of that, hence why we have the strange gallery of public names flying kites. It’s a new mood – after all, no-one was pitching Michael O’Hehir as a would-be president back in the day (and he was a better commentator than Ó Muircheartaigh) – and one which is welcome in some senses. The office of the president shouldn’t just in the gift of the political parties and a presidential election is a very good idea.

However, we seem to forget that the last two inhabitants of the big gaff in the Phoenix Park, the two who are widely acknowledged to have been the best presidents we’ve ever had in the modern age and who changed our perception of the office, had political form. Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese may not have been frontline clientelist politicians in the traditional Irish mode, involved in getting free travel passes for pensioners or sorting out potholes on the street leading to the church, but they knew their way around the system and knew all about potential knives in the back from friends and enemies. They were battle-hardened and experienced. They weren’t newbies attracted to the bright lights and glamour, like some of those pitched for high office in recent weeks. They knew the score.

The problem with mooting celebrity, non-political names is that all of them seem to see the gig as something it’s not. As Vincent Browne puts it again this morning, the president has two powers and that’s it. Yes, he or she also has a nice house for seven years and they’re the top dog (in a manner of speaking), but they also need to get permission from the government to leave the country. And the president is not the one who can change this state of affairs. If it was down to the inhabitant of the Áras, don’t you think that the current and previous incumbents would have done so over the last 20 years?

All the talk in the world about what the would-bes would do – and there will be a lot of it between now and October – doesn’t matter a damn because the role of the president is pre-defined. Sure, there’s wiggle room to do stuff, as the previous two holders of the office have shown, but it’s not a job where initiative and innovation are part of the job description. And yet, to judge by the amount of uninformed and widely off-the-mark speculation to date, you’d think this was something where the successful candidate gets to decide what it’s all about. Question: how many of the would-be celebrities for Prez have actually read Bunreacht na hÉireann from cover to cover? Now, that’s something to ask the applicants for the gig.