MICHAEL MOYNIHAN: Candidates play delicate game mixing sport and politics

And they’re off: even the terminology has a sporting tinge to it.

The general election, formally announced yesterday, has cast a shadow over the landscape for months, with issues like the recent floods likely to be raised on many a damp doorstep. What about sport, though? Does that ever become a hot election topic, apart from the tired horse-racing clichés used to describe the proceedings? A couple of experts say no, but they add some nuance.

“Sport and politics have long mixed in Ireland and in all sorts of ways,” says Professor Gary Murphy, head of DCU’s School of Law and Government.

“What we haven’t seen, however, is sport becoming an overt election issue, due to a number of factors.

“One is that at a national level, sport isn’t on the horizon when it comes to how people cast their vote. Issues such as the economy, health services, education, and crime are all far more on people’s minds when it comes to voting.

“Two, sport also doesn’t really crop up even at local elections and this it seems to me is because local politicians have been proactive in ensuring that local GAA, rugby, soccer and boxing clubs, to name just a few, are aware of what sorts of grants they can apply for (national lottery etc) long before an election comes on the horizon.”

Pat Leahy, deputy editor and political editor of the Sunday Business Post, echoes Murphy’s comments.

“Back in 2002, Michael McDowell of the PDs made an issue of the proposed ‘Bertie Bowl’ ahead of that year’s election, but that wasn’t a matter of sport so much as McDowell expressing his misgivings about giving Fianna Fáil too much power — it was more about overall majorities than the sports aspect.

Candidates play delicate game mixing sport and politics

“An area where it becomes relevant is parties looking for sporting figures to become candidates. But again, that’s not about sport per se so much as recognised figures people respect in a particular area.

“It’s partly less prevalent now because sportspeople tend to be so busy — GAA players are semi- professional, and doing a bit of politics on the side isn’t an option. And the life of a TD is not something people get into as a hobby.

“Those who get into it tend to be driven to do that while sportspeople may have other interests.”

Candidates play delicate game mixing sport and politics

There are people in the Dáil with sporting profiles, as Leahy says — former Louth manager Peter Fitzpatrick, former Galway and Leitrim manager John O’Mahony, former Kerry footballer Jimmy Deenihan, and so on.

But it doesn’t always work out. Murphy points out the successful sporting politicians have plenty of unsuccessful counterparts who got eliminated on the first count: “Players and ex-players seeking election to public office have a pretty mixed record. For every Jack Lynch or Jimmy Deenihan, there’s a Brian Whelahan or Graham Geraghty.

“In the 2007 general election Geraghty, running for Fine Gael, got 1,284 first preference votes — a 3.17% share. Irish people seem in general to be sophisticated enough when it comes to casting their votes and are sceptical about what we might call celebrity candidates.

“George Lee of RTÉ was, of course, an exception here but we all know what happened to him. Going back even further, Liam O Murchu, also of RTÉ, ran for Fianna Fáil in Cork North Central in February 1982 getting 1,894 votes — 4.45%, He didn’t run in the November election that year.

“Overall I think the Irish voting public at both national and local issues are voting primarily on what individuals and parties say they are going to do rather than on how well known they are to the public.

“I think Mick Wallace in Wexford is a good example of this — he built up a huge profile as a successful builder who ploughed a lot of money into the Wexford Youths League of Ireland side and other clubs, boxing in particular, and reaped the rewards at the ballot box in the 2011 election.”

Candidates play delicate game mixing sport and politics

Broadening the context, a politician with an authentic interest in sport faces a tricky dilemma. If he or she is loud and visible in their fandom don’t they run the risk of being accused of one of the great sporting crimes; jumping on the bandwagon?

“Of course a lot of them are genuinely interested in sport, just like everybody else,” says Leahy.

“But I’d say 100% of them claim to be and I don’t know if that’s a percentage that adds up! What sport offers them is the opportunity to humanise themselves and to be associated with popularity — and they just can’t resist that. You’ll see the statements released by politicians particularly when there’s national sporting success, praising the winners, but they need to be very careful about it, because it’s dangerous for them.”

Murphy offers a textbook example of those dangers in operation.

“As Taoiseach Charlie Haughey famously went to the 1990 World Cup quarter-final, doing a lap of honour with the team at the end; in 1987 when Stephen Roche won the Tour de France, Haughey appeared on the podium with him.

“But politicians of all levels are clearly worried now, in a more sceptical and social media-driven world, of being accused of jumping on bandwagons, and there is no real currency in Irish politics of seeking celebrity endorsements. I think it’s because Ireland is generally a small society and perhaps a society not easily impressed by fame.

“On the other hand, you look at people like Bertie Ahern and his love of the Dubs and Manchester United, Michael D Higgins and his long association with League of Ireland football. Mick Wallace with Wexford Youths, Brian Cowen’s long association with Offaly GAA, Micheal Martin with Nemo Rangers and Cork.

Candidates play delicate game mixing sport and politics

“Those aren’t politicians being interested in sport so that people can see they are, it’s a case of politicians behaving as normal people.” The general election isn’t the only big event this year, of course. In the summer, Martin O’Neill takes the Republic of Ireland to France for the European Championships, an event the country is looking forward to eagerly. Any chance soccer stardust could rub off on another national leader in his own contest? “I give no credence to the idea of large sporting events being contributory factors to political success or failure,” says Murphy.

“We have no real examples of general elections aligning with major sporting events in Ireland — but again, I think the electorate is somewhat more sophisticated than to be hoodwinked into voting for anyone on the grounds of how well the national team is going to do in a major competition.”

Leahy agrees: “Public scepticism is so deep and widespread that any attempt to piggyback on the back of sporting success can backfire.

“If the general election were held in June, in the middle of the Euros, you might get a national feelgood factor, but an election months after qualifying and months before the tournament... does it harm the government? No.

“Does it offer them any significant help? Only minutely, I’d suspect.”

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