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The Wizard of Loss and the lure of the limelight over the rainbow

DECLAN Ganley feels that he’s publicly misrepresented.

The misrepresenters were making him out to be a Eurosceptic, he said, on radio, whereas in fact he was a federalist.

I wrote it down, and then, like a good little student, I went off and looked it up.

Chambers dictionary said a federalist is a supporter of a federal constitution or union, which didn’t advance the issue much. Most of the rest of the stuff in that dictionary about things federal related to the US civil war, which didn’t seem to have a bearing on twenty-first century Ireland. Which, in turn, led to Brewer’s Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable, as likely to contain any word, phrase or categorisation currently or historically embedded in Irish discourse. It had nothing about federalism.

Next step in this drive for self-improvement was to take down the biographies and autobiographies of leading figures and to check the indexes of each. Nelson Mandela? Nope. Bill Clinton? Nope. Hillary Clinton? Another nope. It didn’t matter whether the account was of a major figure in recent Irish, American or British political life. None of them referred to federalism.

It is, you have to agree, a tad odd that a bright man would set out to prove he’s not what everybody understands him to be by describing himself as something nobody knows, using a term that has no currency whatever. Puzzling, this self-definition in a man currently on the road, testing the waters to see if the waters want a new political party. (Or movement. He doesn’t seem to like the word ‘party’ any more than Eurosceptic.) This is brave and innovative. Nobody has ever done it before. Most people who start political parties do so because they have a passionate belief in something, not because advance research proves there’s a market for it.

Now, you might have thought that having proven himself to be the most spectacular electoral loser ever, he might have spared himself the trouble. He couldn’t even get a terrifying brain like Caroline Simons elected in Ireland, and with a pan-European spend of millions, couldn’t get anyone elected anywhere outside Ireland.

He is, in short, the Wizard of Loss. But he has that admirable capacity to dream that somewhere, over the rainbow, federalism flies and to put his money where his mouth is. As have a number of other high-profile individuals who have, for the past 18 months, been half-flying kites about setting up a new political party. Sorry. Movement. They’ve been like the Grand Old Duke of York. The bloke who had 10,000 men and marched them up to the top of the hill and marched them down again. They couldn’t be in a better place, these hypothetical Dukes of York. They could lash into the vacuum before Fianna Fáil gets its groove back and — if they could rustle up a few duchesses of York, could benefit from the new 30% rule.

Or maybe not. In this paper, on Saturday, Michael Clifford wrote an account of one of the test-the-waters meetings. It is sinful, it is so good. Read it online if you missed it. Clifford mentioned, inter alia, the fact that one of the speakers at the event, Professor Ray Kinsella, advanced the interesting if oddball theory that austerity and abortion are linked.

Mentioning the safety of having a baby in Ireland, he said he should know, because he’d had 10 of them. Babies, you understand. Which must have surprised the hell out of the maternity hospitals involved. Not that this mattered to the audience, who gave him a right rousing round of applause for fecundity.

Now, children, long, long before your time, Irish national radio, then called Radio Éireann, used to have 15-minute sponsored programmes at lunchtime. One of them was the Urney show, sponsored by a candy company. On that show, Gay Byrne used to interview talkative oul wans, and sooner or later, on every programme, one of them would tell him she had eight children. Or 10. Or anything up to 15, which seemed to be the record. This would be greeted by a handclap that — even back then — was bizarre. But at least the oul wans had delivered the babies themselves.

The handclappers weren’t applauding the men who had merely impregnated the oul wans, whereas, in Ireland last week, an audience applauded Ray Kinsella for fathering a multiplicity of children. (No mention of the good professor’s wife.)

Of course that audience has the right to become wildly enthusiastic about multiple fatherhood. It doesn’t matter that it evokes, for some of us, a shuddering recollection of a time when the only thing open for women to lean into was motherhood.

But as a Unique Selling Proposition, I would humbly suggest, M’lud, having 10 children is a bit limited. Even if added to being against abortion and austerity, it doesn’t amount to a policy manifesto.

Calvin Coolidge, long after he finished with the American presidency, observed that it’s "difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshippers. They are constantly and for the most part sincerely assured of their greatness".

THAT’S part of the problem with the men testing the waters before leading this hypothetical political entity: an over-supply of worshippers. Mr Ganley is worshipped by media because he talks with enormous force and confidence. Michael McDowell the same. The audiences they attract for their free townhall sessions are the Ross Perot/George Lee audiences; suffering from chronic low-grade discontent matched with an inchoate yearning for Messianic change. Nobody in their right minds — and remember, some of these guys are reputed to have very good minds — would try to built a political movement around that.

I think myself it’s the prospect of being constantly on television that’s the big pull for these guys. I really do. Appearing on TV is an adrenalin rush with masochism on top: bungie jumping with bondage thrown in. I’m convinced people like Mr Ganley feel more alive in a TV studio than in real life, never mind in Leinster House. No. That’s to suggest Mr Ganley is an exception, whereas Vincent Browne’s programme, every night of the week, proves Mr Ganley is no exception. Peter Mathews is just one of a list of people who, at the end of that programme, look like they’re trying to work out whether what’s gone over them is a Sherman, a Panzer or a Scorpion tank.

People addicted to appearing on television don’t feel they exist if they haven’t been on screen for a few weeks. They quickly get so desperate that if someone offers them a job coaching cats in tap dancing for a reality TV show, they’d agree to it. Never mind the quality, feel the recognition. I appear, therefore I am...

The thrill of constant media appearances is the only reason I can see for this posited new party. But a party with Declan Ganley and Michael McDowell at the top and Ray Kinsella thrown in for moral ballast?

Ah, lads. Get a grip.