MICHAEL CLIFFORD: From Dragon fire to (almost) the farce

He lugs his sense of injustice around like a piece of election literature, writes Michael Clifford.

SEÁN Gallagher has a lot to answer for. He breathed fire into the Dragons. He gave them a shot of confidence and led them from the Den. He foisted them on us, the people of Ireland. And look where it has led? To a presidential election just about managing to refrain from toppling into farce. That is not exclusively the fault of the thunder of the Dragons, but their presence in the race is a major contributing factor.

Mr Gallagher bears no personal responsibility for the presidential campaigns of his fellow TV celebrities, Gavin Duffy and Peter Casey. But surely it was his experience seven years ago in garnering around half a million votes that led his fellow Dragons to believe anything he could do, maybe they could do a little better.

Hence we have been subjected to a presidential campaign involving three individuals whose substantive pitch to be president is that they made money in business. That’s a fine base from which to launch a career in parliamentary politics, but surely a little more is required for the office of president?

Would any one of them, including Gallagher, ever have been within an ass’s roar of a nomination, not to mind election, if they hadn’t been on the celebrity TV programme?

So it goes in the age of Trump. No doubt all three individuals are fine men of high integrity and compassion who love all of God’s creatures and are in favour of world peace. But look at where it has brought the campaign to elect the next president.

Gavin Duffy has the cut of a candidate manufactured from a PR template. Perhaps that’s to be expected as he made his packet in media and PR.

One thing he can’t manufacture for his public profile is likeability. That is no reason to believe he is anything but likeable in private, but that’s irrelevant. On a public platform he simply does not come across as somebody to whose company you would be attracted.

Mr Gallagher is a different kind of ‘Dragon’. Seven years ago he very nearly managed to electorally exploit widespread disenchantment with establishment politics. He ran a great campaign and was arguably done a major disservice in the RTÉ debate in the last week.

That was in another country. Today he lugs his sense of injustice around like a piece of election literature. If his campaign last time out was slick and effective, there’s something missing now.

For instance, he refused to appear on Monday’s TV debate because Michael D Higgins opted out. Politically, Higgins could afford to do that as opinion polls have him on around 65% of the vote. On 14%, Gallagher thought it a shrewd move to forgo a chance to sell himself to the people of Ireland.

Typical of his out-of-time campaign was his statement at Wednesday’s TV debate. “I understand what it takes to grow jobs,” he said. Does that mean he wants to increase staff numbers at the Áras? Or is it a hint at some magic seeds he intends to plant in the Phoenix Park?

Then we have Peter Casey, who is taking the weekend to reflect on whether or not he should proceed with his campaign following the controversy over his criticism of Travellers. He started out by projecting easy affability but desperation prompted him to turn ugly.

More than 30 years ago, when he was leaving for Australia, Peter promised his mother he would one day be president of Ireland.

The candidates in the presidential election ahead of a Virgin Media debate: From left, Peter Casey, Sean Gallagher, Liadh Ní Riada, debate presenter Pat Kenny, President Michael D Higgins, Joan Freeman, and Gavin Duffy Picture: Brian McEvoy
The candidates in the presidential election ahead of a Virgin Media debate: From left, Peter Casey, Sean Gallagher, Liadh Ní Riada, debate presenter Pat Kenny, President Michael D Higgins, Joan Freeman, and Gavin Duffy Picture: Brian McEvoy

At the time, the office was the exclusive preserve of retired politicians and there was no sign it would ever be anything else. Yet Peter looked into his heart and saw a future where the people of Ireland would recognise him as a president who would, presumably, grow jobs, play golf or do whatever it is he’s good at.

In recent days, as the people of Ireland have failed to recognise his destiny, he not alone lashed out at Travellers but lobbed a series of unfounded allegations at the incumbent. He has lowered the tone of the campaign, but in the USA or Australia, he now has the calling card of a former presidential contender.

There are three other candidates who are not dragons. Joan Freeman has retained her dignity in the campaign. There’s not much more to say about her than that.

Liadh Ní Riada has grown over the campaign, which might signal her entry into national politics. Her candidacy is designed to cynically drive-on the Sinn Féin project rather than acquire office. Only time will tell whether she has succeeded where Martin McGuinness failed seven years ago. At least though, the Shinners stood a candidate, which is more than can be said for the other parties.

Unfortunately, the election has seen Michael D Higgins needlessly lower his own standing. He has played politics with the office in this election. His campaigning modus operandi was best illustrated last Monday. The president appeared on RTÉ’s Six One to explain why he was too busy being president to appear at that evening’s debate with the other candidates. The previous night Seán Gallagher hand-delivered a letter to the Áras pleading with Michael D to come before the people of Ireland. No such luck. Poor Seán then looked into his heart and concluded that he had no choice but to reciprocate with his own no-show.

During the debate, Peter Casey said that Michael D’s dog grooming bills were picked up by the State.

At the Áras, the president was busy not watching the debate and busy reading the Public Health Alcohol bill at 9.30pm. His spokesperson, who was busy watching the debate, phoned in to tell Claire Byrne that the busy president paid for his own dog grooming.

Naturally, the other candidates — apart from the absent Seán — were outraged at this attempt to treat a presidential debate as if it was Liveline.

Afterwards, the president’s office asked Mr Gallagher to desist from sending letters to the Áras. He apparently believed that the seat of the presidency should not be contaminated with the grubby business of electioneering. Unless, of course, he’s the one doing the electioneering.

Since the presidency was dragged from its retirement home in 1990 the incumbents have been largely dynamic. The Marys — Robinson and McAleese — had some experience in politics, a lot in law and enough gravitas and personality to fill the shoes of the office. Higgins, with a variation of those attributes, is in the same league, and he can write poetry which is nearly as good as having a playwright as president.

Nobody else in this campaign comes near those three as a candidate. There are issues over Higgins’ age and his capacity to maintain a full diary right into his 80s, but he obviously loves being president.

And so he shall continue to be, come next Friday. All that remains to be seen is the placings of the also-rans.

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