Una Mullally: Presidential election a new low for politics

Random schoolchildren would have made a better case for themselves

‘There are two kinds of people in this world; winners and losers. Inside each of every one of you, at the very core of your being, is a winner waiting to be awakened and unleashed upon the world.’

The opening scenes of Little Miss Sunshine show the character Richard Hoover, a striving motivational speaker and life coach, delivering a bold presentation to a half-empty lecture theatre.

It’s the type of dross that for some is empowering, and for others is just that: dross. What that type of rhetoric attempts to instil is a sense of grandeur and purpose into those who think self-belief is a force bigger than anything including talent, skill or ability.

After a farcical nomination campaign, we are now down to the achingly slow final stages

I’ve been thinking about those opening lines a lot while watching the presidential campaign unfold, although truthfully, I’ve been doing everything I can to avoid this campaign, which has to be a low point in contemporary Irish politics.


Why is this campaign so terrible? Why are most of the candidates of such low calibre given the actual calibre of our presidents? The obvious answer is that anyone can see Michael D Higgins will win (if people get out and vote, of course).

If people do vote in decent numbers, it is hard to see anything other than a landslide for Higgins. Therefore, anyone with genuine aspirations for the presidency will hold their whist until they’re actually in with a shot in seven years’ time. But you can’t ignore things forever, so on Saturday I finally bit the bullet and listened to a presidential “debate” on RTÉ Radio 1.

Dear God. If you picked a number of schoolchildren at random, they would have made a better case for themselves. After a farcical nomination campaign, we are now down to the achingly slow final stages, where we have to listen to random businessmen – the Richard Hoovers of this world – assert themselves with an arrogance that is breathtaking.

There’s Joan Freeman, who founded Pieta House. Well done. At least she’s done something of note. She has also claimed her eczema was cured by a trip to the shrine at Knock. So there’s that. Liadh Ní Riada is there because Sinn Féin wanted to run a candidate.

As a lineup of candidates, the triumvirate of Peter Casey, Sean Gallagher and Gavin Duffy, evoke the aftermath of a “Reaching Your Potential” conference. I can’t help but picture the likes of them as the stragglers leaving the last “networking opportunity”, cradling weak tea in a hotel lobby as inside a conference room named after an Irish mountain, gravy congeals on leftover plates.

How uninspiring can you get?

Duffy is a "Believer in Ireland", according to his Twitter profile. Well at least he's not running to be the ceremonial head of a mirage

Having never watched Dragons’ Den, these people are new to me, apart from Sean “fail better” Gallagher. Gallagher’s self-righteousness is almost comedic. His 60-second video pitch to be president was widely shared on Twitter, where he sounded like a poorly engineered algorithm trying to write the lyrics for Ireland’s next Eurovision entry.

The question of where Gallagher has been for the past seven years has been repeatedly asked. Ireland has undergone and reflected massive social change in that time. Ordinary people took it upon themselves to create and join movements. People started grassroots campaigns, they protested, joined forces, became activists, and springing from a sense of justice, equality and civic duty moulded, their country for the better. Gallagher, Duffy and Casey sat that one out.

Duffy is a “Believer in Ireland”, according to his Twitter profile. Well at least he’s not running to be the ceremonial head of a mirage. Duffy trades in the honed banalities of a mid-level conference MC, and specialises in cringe-inducing social media videos which are a lesson in anodyne media training.

‘Bastion of spoofery’

In the RTÉ Radio 1 debate, Casey came across as nasty, especially when taking pops at Higgins’s age. The world that these people occupy, a world of consulting, media training, business and leadership conferences and motivational speaking, is a bastion of spoofery. It is an environment where some people do decent enough work, and also where the anodyne triumph.

Perhaps what has led us to this moment is the laughable elevated positioning of the “entrepreneur” in society in the aftermath of the economic crash. Entrepreneurs were going to save us. Nobody is doubting the contribution of business owners to the economy, but singling out people as special just because they activated a business idea is ridiculous. You are not magic just because you start a company, no more magic than a teacher or a farmer or a student or a doctor or a community worker.

What do these three candidates in particular stand for, besides solidifying the sentiment of that contemporary T-shirt slogan, “Lord give me the confidence of a mediocre white man”? Observing this political “race’ would turn anyone off politics. Too frequently voters are left looking at ballot papers frustrated with mediocre options before picking “the best of a bad lot”.

It is why we end up with the bulk of elected politicians being, shall we say, below average. This mediocrity begets mediocrity, rarely inspiring or motivating actual talented people to get involved in politics.

The only good thing this campaign has done, as far as I can tell, is renew debate about why the Áras isn’t subject to Freedom of Information. Aside from that, it encourages us to take a long, hard look at ourselves if this bunch – Higgins aside – is the best we can offer as a potential head of state.