Nov­elty and the Áras: All changed, changed ut­terly... The prospect of a Drag­ons’ Den alum­nus as pres­i­dent re­in­forces just how much the of­fice has changed since grey men ruled the roost, writes

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - AGENDA -

What does it take to be­come Pres­i­dent of Ire­land? In days gone by, that was a no-brainer. You had to be male and to have put in a dis­tin­guished record of long ser­vice to ei­ther Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, for which the lucky re­cip­i­ent would be re­warded with seven years or more to shave his golf hand­i­cap, schmooze vis­it­ing VIPs and travel the world first class.

What does it take to be­come Pres­i­dent of Ire­land in 2018? No­body knows for sure. The na­ture of the pres­i­dency, and of the coun­try it­self, has changed ut­terly since the old mould was smashed with Mary Robin­son’s seis­mic win in 1990. Even in the seven years since the last pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Ire­land has been trans­formed. Just think of the un­think­ables that have be­come re­al­ity since Michael D en­tered the Áras in 2011. We’ve em­braced same-sex mar­riage, le­galised abor­tion, Net­flix and so much more.

This week, the Drag­ons’ Den celebrity busi­ness­man Gavin Duffy threw his name into the hat for the pres­i­dency. One of his for­mer col­leagues from the show, Seán Gal­lagher, is re­ported to be seek­ing nom­i­na­tions again, hav­ing sprinted ahead as the front-run­ner in 2011. An­other with a de­clared in­ter­est in run­ning is Kevin Sharkey, an artist, fleet­ing Fa­ther Ted char­ac­ter, and par­tic­i­pant in the ‘re­al­ity’ TV show Celebrity Farm.

Which brings us to the nub of the mat­ter. Where does the process to select Ire­land’s pres­i­dent now stand on a slid­ing scale be­tween the straight divvy-up be­tween our two big­gest par­ties it once was, and the re­al­ity show that it seems des­tined to be­come? Maybe we won’t get a nov­elty win­ner this time, but al­ready we’re hear­ing the term “joke can­di­dates” bandied about like never be­fore.

“Joke can­di­dates” might be a judg­ment too cruel on some, but there is a sound case to be made that some will have not the faintest ex­pec­ta­tion that they can win the race. Some won’t have much ex­pec­ta­tion that they can even gather the po­lit­i­cal sup­port to gain a nom­i­na­tion. But that’s not the point. As one com­men­ta­tor laid bare this week, it’s not about the win­ning, it’s about the tak­ing part. To present your­self as pres­i­den­tial ma­te­rial, to merely place your­self in the or­bit of the Áras, is pow­er­ful “brand en­hance­ment”. Just to be part of the ac­tion is a win-win sit­u­a­tion.

The book­ies are not in the busi­ness of get­ting things wrong, and the book­ies will tell you that, de­spite is­sues of age, Michael D will most likely stroll back to the park. In ad­di­tion to the fact that his pres­i­dency has been widely ad­mired and ap­proved, he ben­e­fits from the In­cum­bent Ef­fect. The In­cum­bent Ef­fect has been mea­sured down the decades as a pow­er­ful force in Ir­ish pol­i­tics. It decrees that, all things be­ing equal, the per­son in situ will be re­turned in any con­test.

We might be less snooty, and less con­cerned about the grav­i­tas of the pres­i­dency, if Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had not con­nived to cap­ture the post from the out­set and turn it into their dis­mal crea­ture. The only vis­i­ble link be­tween the Áras and show­biz for decades was when eye­brows were raised in 1959 by re­tir­ing pres­i­dent Seán T Ó Ceal­laigh. Ex­it­ing the park to make way for Éa­mon de Valera, Ó Ceal­laigh took with him as a per­sonal pos­ses­sion a tele­vi­sion set which had been gifted by Pye “to the ameni­ties of Áras an Uachtaráin”. Left bereft, the staff were not im­pressed.

The na­ture of the pres­i­dency was de­cided from the out­set by the rul­ing class. The first Free State gov­ern­ment had been pleased to iden­tify them­selves as “the most con­ser­va­tive revo­lu­tion­ar­ies in his­tory” and the Fianna Fáil ad­min­is­tra­tion that re­placed them were equally com­fort­able with that la­bel. They were grey men for grey times. Catholic pu­ri­tans.

If the pub­lic had been given a say, this coun­try would prob­a­bly have had a show­biz pres­i­dent at the first time of ask­ing. Dubbed ‘The Lord Mayor of Ire­land’, Al­fie Byrne was as shame­less a self-pro­moter as the most tat­tooed ex­hi­bi­tion­ist ever to strut their stuff on Love Is­land. He was the tar­get of end­less par­ody by Mau­reen Pot­ter at the Gai­ety, where Jimmy O’Dea nick­named him The Shak­ing Hand of Dublin.

O’Dea told a joke about a cy­clist up in court for fail­ing to sig­nal a turn. The de­fen­dant said he’d been afraid to put out his hand in case Byrne shook it. But Byrne was hugely pop­u­lar and many had him down as a cert for the Áras in 1938. But FG hated the mav­er­ick Byrne and FF feared hu­mil­i­a­tion at his hands. He was blocked, and the Áras would be­come a re­tire­ment home for party hacks.

The past two ref­er­enda have wit­nessed a surge to po­lit­i­cal em­pow­er­ment of a new gen­er­a­tion. There are new forces at play. Next stop the Áras.

Mig­gledy and the scourge of bet­ting apps — see Ian O’Do­herty, page 10 Shak­ing hand of Dublin: Byrne was blocked in his Áras bid by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael

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