Anyone could be president... or could they?
THIS week we’ll elect a new president. The ninth or 10th — depending on who wins — Irish head of State will be voted in this Friday and take up residence in Aras an Uachtarain for the next seven years. And, like presidential elections before, it’s something of a peculiar spectacle.
Our presidency is largely a ceremonial role, so it’s a difficult job to run for. The Irish President can’t be politically active in the way members of the Oireachtas can. They can’t effect legislative change or bring about policy direction. They can’t campaign, in any real sense, on issues. They can’t even say things publicly that could be contentious without consulting with the Government first. Mostly, they are a figurehead.
So when candidates come out with pronouncements on how they’ll drive the country and create jobs, fix the housing crisis, build trade and forge a better future for us all, they are largely ridiculed as not understanding what the job they’re applying for actually entails. But, truth be told, if they came out and said “I can cut a ribbon with the best of them. I’m great at hosting garden parties. I look fantastic in a suit and I love meeting other important people” they’d be accused of trivialising
‘All I’ve heard is criticism of their characters’
the role. They are caught between a rock and a hard place — not able to speak about lofty things they’d like to do without sounding foolish, not able to speak about what they’ll actually do without sounding trite.
So much of what is assessed about candidates boils down to that elusive quality ‘character’. And that, alas, is why it is such a bruising campaign. The way in which these characters are judged is by attempting to undermine them and seek out any flaws that lie therein.
So all I really know about Peter Casey is that he was bluntly critical of the Traveller community. What I’ve heard about Liadh Ni Riada is that she is anti-hpv vaccine and wouldn’t disavow IRA violence. Gavin Duffy is apparently pro-hunting. Joan Freeman voted No in the last referendum and is related to the Iona Institute. Sean Gallagher has allegedly done nothing for the past seven years and is a sore loser from the last time. And Michael D Higgins — although he’s getting less criticism because he’s a widely popular President — is taking some stick about the Aras finances and his views on Fidel Castro.
In other words all I’ve heard is criticism of their characters. Some of it may be deserved. Some of it may be a poor enough summation of them as people. But it seems an odd way to go about electing a president. I’ve heard relatively little about their accomplishments. The three Dragons’ Den candidates are businessmen — I don’t really know what kind of businesses they run or how successful or relevant they are. I’m unaware of Liadh Ni Riada’s record in the European Parliament. I only heard of Pieta House in glowing terms prior to the election but I haven’t heard much positive about it since Joan Freeman entered the fray. And MDH is, as incumbent, the only one really credited with the ability to do the job because he manifestly has been doing it for the past seven years but, as I recall, last time out there was doubt bandied about that too — hence the one-term promise.
It seems to me that if the president’s role is largely ceremonial then the truth is any of them could probably do it. And if we, as a republic, believe all our citizens are eligible for the job then perhaps we shouldn’t feign such disbelief when some folk actually apply for it. I remember in 1997 when Adi Roche —who had been lauded for her work for the Chernobyl charity — was viciously torn asunder the minute she entered the Aras race. Why?
There’s a sneering tone to presidential election commentary here that smacks of begrudgery to me — the Irish dislike of people getting above themselves. Like we don’t believe ordinary people are good enough for high office. I wonder if it is a post-monarchy perspective? We do still ooh and aah over the British royals, who got their gigs by accident of birth. As a republic, I’d hope any citizen should be considered worthy to run for president. But I’m really not sure that’s the case.
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The race for the Aras will see a winner cross the line this week