The Presidential Election


Sir, - John Waters's argument (Opinion, September 30th), that "our first premeditatedly sexist Presidency" is the latest example of a society bent on being "gratuitously oppressive of men" contained so much simplistic theorising and misrepresentation of the real nature and history of patriarchy and the oppression of women that it is hard to know where to begin, or whether it is worth dignifying his column by beginning at all. But if we ignore him, presumably he'll only interpret this (wrongly) as yet another example of misandristic "exclusion and oppression" of men.

I believe that there is indeed an aspect of this Presidential campaign that is telling us something important about public perceptions of men in Irish society. The problem is not the marginalisation of men, but the implicit rejection of a particular form of gender identity and masculinity in public life. Whether we like it or not, the Presidency has become associated with intimacy and qualities such as openness, inclusiveness, negotiation, caring and equality.

For all the cynicism that has greeted attempts by the four women candidates to "embrace" and expand the emotional range of the Presidency, the gender imbalance of the election betrays a powerful perception - not least among the political establishment itself, which selected the candidates - that men in Irish public life are not up to representing the kind of intimate work and emotional range the job now requires. Or at least that male candidates wouldn't stand a chance in a contest which it was known would be fought on the ground of the new public intimacy.

This says as much about the depths to which perceptions of men in Irish public life have sunk as it does about the capacity of men to practice intimacy in public. Tony Blair has proved that the capacity to practice intimacy in public life by being demonstrably concerned about one's role as a father, husband, son and citizen is not particular to women. Thus Derek Nally may well prove the negative perception of Irish men to be false. And if he does, I'll be the first in line to give him a great big hug.

Enormous responsibility lies with the political culture in Ireland and the negative virtues that male-dominated institutions increasingly symbolise because of recent scandals. Yet a great deal still rests on how prepared individual men are to develop themselves and publicly take risks to represent something different.

Thankfully, an important beginning has been made on men's personal development work in Ireland. At its best, such work involves a struggle to embrace (I make absolutely no apology for the language) openness, inclusiveness and equality. As men we are challenged and supported to develop skills at intimacy, to take responsibility for personal and societal change as well as to clarify our own rights in the context of women's and children's.

It is particularly against the background of such constructive attempts by men (and women) to manage change that it saddens and worries me to witness John Waters present such a gratuitously inaccurate picture of the place of men in Irish society and how we are allegedly now treated by (tyrannical) women. By constantly seeking to polarise the debate and pitting women against men, he is only making things worse. I wish he would honour boys and men by at least trying to represent in a balanced way the complexity of male views and experiences.

Finally, John Waters alleges that President Robinson refused to meet the father's rights group Parental Equality because of a heavy workload. I have no doubt, however, that, just like their predecessor, whoever wins the election will recognise the men who are genuinely working together quietly and with dignity for change and welcome men's groups that are represented in a progressive way into the Aras. - Yours, etc., Harry Ferguson,

Dept of Applied Social Studies,

University College, Cork.