Brian O’Connor: Let’s hope election candidates have more to offer than mere profile
Too often, sporting achievement has become a shortcut to political mediocrity
Olympic silver medalist Kenny Egan: now an elected city councillor for Fine Gael. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
An acquaintance burrowed into the GAA deeper than an All-Ireland winning tick assures me a prominent player will soon be revealed as a Dail election candidate. This is also the acquaintance that assured me last Christmas it would be a decade before Kilkenny contended for an All-Ireland again which indicates this forecast shouldn’t be taken as gospel.
But apparently our potential new Rousseau ticks all the boxes of affability, popularity, and malleable take-it-or-leave-it levels of enthusiasm for the business of actual politics: most importantly of all, he has ‘profile.’
And profile is catnip at conspiratorial Christmas Cumman because there isn’t a smoke-free, wi-fi-available backroom in the country that doesn’t know profile is where it’s at.
Call it name-recognition, brand personality, or depth of impact, it is basically the business of us looking at a face on the telly and saying to ourselves ‘it’s yer-man.’ Or, of course, ‘yer-wan.’ There’s nothing discriminatory about profile, a cut-rate short-cut to public engagement.
From winking weather forecasting ‘personalities’ on the Dying-On-Its-Arse + 1 channel, to vlogging attention-seekers, and upwards to primetime inanity such as allowing Russell Brand’s puerile political posturing to be presented with a straight-face, there’s nothing that can’t be made more accessible with the right profile fit.
It’s got so that expertise has become an optional extra, the presumption being it might be restrictive or elitist compared to a familiar face holding our nano-second attention spans, translating stuff into convenient byte-size morsels, with obligatory emoting about their journey along the way of course.
It’s a modern manifestation of something political parties have done for decades, pinning a sporting face to an election; but the culture involved is essentially the same. It’s all about the shortcut.
At the height of those Tiger years, when a gooey-eyed presumption briefly circulated that this country might pass for a functional western democracy, and where the whole ‘who-you-know’ bit might become irrelevant, there was a feeling that putting sports stars onto the ticket had become a bit old hat, a suspicion which deepened when GAA stars Graham Geraghty and John O’Leary both bombed out.
Now that so much delusional gloss is gone however, it’s back to the tried-and-trusted, albeit with a shiny digital emulsion. It’s the nature of social-media to send speculation shooting out with scattergun imprecision and denials often only fuel a rumour. But since my true-Gael pal thinks ‘pingback’ comes in an envelope, his expectation is more rooted in actual word of mouth than digital conversation.
Which doesn’t mean he’s right of course: it could all be complete rubbish. However getting sports people onto the ticket has winning form over course and distance for a long time. And it must be pointed out there’s nothing which says a well-known sporting figure is automatically going to be a rubbish public representative.
Jack Lynch is the classic example of versatile accomplishment: a man of towering sporting ability who some considered to have had the personal charisma of a cup of weak water, but who can also truly be said to have performed this state some service in the face of others whose hefty charisma quotient was only outweighed by their self-serving instincts.
By many accounts, Dick Spring brought more ability to the job of politics than he did to rugby, a not an inconsiderable boast considering he has a handful of caps for Ireland.
But too often, sporting achievement has become a short-cut to political mediocrity, a profile exploited for votes before getting parked in backbench anonymity, reduced to funeral-going and wheel-greasing, wheeled out as number fodder for the only absolute political reality which is that it’s ultimately about the acquisition and then retention of power.
Maybe there is a new Voltaire lurking out there on Ireland’s pitches, a Diogenes in the rough, capable of more than mere rote cant and playing a more substantial political game than cute-hoor backslapping: there really may be. And there may also be a chance they will get no nearer to national politics than Kilkenny to a football final because some famous hurler on a winnable ditch is a ‘yer-man.’
Pat Rabbitte would suggest pointing this out is at the root of public apathy towards politics, except this is no chicken and egg deal. It is the cynicism with which so much of the political game is played in this country rather than any commentary on it which contributes towards public disillusionment.
This year saw Kenny, sorry, Kenneth Egan, tagged by Fine Gael as a candidate for Dublin City Council despite any previously recorded interest in politics being kept extremely discreet by the Olympic silver-medallist.
The thanklessness of much of the job involved in being a councillor appears to have resulted in a noticeable lack of accusations about possible parachuting by Egan, yet even he conceded at one stage that his sporting profile was probably being used to secure votes.
Such straight-forwardness was what endeared him to many after Olympic success, which of course had a consequent positive profile impact, which in turn led to an opportunity for Egan to become a political player. Within weeks Egan was talking the talk about using his profile to keep it real in the community and is now an elected city councillor.
And there’s no arguing with that. The people spoke. And sooner rather than later we’ll speak again with who knows who lining up to supposedly listen. Maybe more high-profile sporting personalities will be among them. But is too much to hope they might have something more to offer than mere profile?