TERRY PRONE: Race for the Áras is fought with a huge concentration of viciousness

The great thing about the old days was that we had the Catholic Church to deliver reproof, punishment and banishment, writes Terry Prone

EVEN if Michael D had decided he was off out of the Áras at the end of his first run, Miriam O’Callaghan would have been ill-advised to go for the presidency. For starters, doing it on her own as an independent would keep her skirts clean of any party political involvement, and that would have been good. But if Dana Rosemary Scallan couldn’t do it, with her unofficial network of faith-related followers, then anybody thinking of going that route should think long and hard.

It may have been Kissinger who said something to the effect that the competitive venom of academia was out of all proportion to the money or prestige involved. Same is true of the presidency. You can’t do much, once elected, other than talk on themes the Government doesn’t object to, although Mary McAleese quietly stretched the bounds of the role by bringing unionist paramilitaries into the Áras as part of her commitment to bridge-building. Someone who is already famous may just about maintain their recognition factor by attending every community gunfight going during their time in office.

Yet, despite all of the downsides, the contest, in recent decades, has been fought with a concentration of viciousness that applies in no other context, except perhaps one involving Conor McGregor. Instead of broken window glass, however, what the presidential campaign offers is broken reputations, entrapment and a level of nastiness inappropriate to the dignity of the role being fought for.

Contenders go into the contest buoyed up by their popularity, hard-won in other areas of Irish life, and find it stripped from them within days. One of Ireland’s most admirable women, Adi Roche, entered the arena with a sunny, unself-conscious optimism. This woman has devoted her entire life to the children of Chernobyl, generation after generation of them. Adi Roche is relentless in her fight for her charity and appeared to be a great choice for the Áras.

None of which prevented her being horribly mauled during her bid for the presidency, a mauling often based on completely irrelevant trivia, like her singing along happily with Luka Bloom during a public event at which, it was decided by consensus, she should have shown more gravitas.

The mauling left scars on those around her as well as on Adi herself. Fergus Finlay, of this parish, would be regarded, in political terms, as a tough cookie. Mention Adi Roche to him and watch that cookie crumble. What happened to her, in a campaign he had a large part in running, grieves him to this day, and rightly so, because it was neither fair nor justified.

But them’s the weird breaks of a presidential election campaign and no doubt, when or if she was considering her options, Miriam O’Callaghan would have looked not just at the career-ending nature of the contest for her personally, but at the damage it might deliver to her large family.

If anything were found out about any of them that seemed to diminish her fitness for office, rampant unforgiving self-righteousness would have come into play in a big way.

The great thing about the old days was that we had the Catholic Church to deliver reproof, punishment and banishment, rather than us as voters or social media vigilantes. The Catholic Church owned self-righteousness, which was grand, because it allowed for cover resistance and the sense of belonging to a courageous Other group.

It also owned forgiveness, and tended to be mingy when it came to doling it out. The example we grew up with was that of King Henry IV, the European emperor of the day, who went into battle with the Pope of the day, only to find himself losing his emperorship and his membership of the Church, the latter at the time being the equivalent of winning a free ticket straight to hell.

Henry worked out that reversal out of his present position might not be a bad idea, and decided to cross half the continent to apologise to the pope, who put every possible logistical obstacle in his way. When Henry arrived with his wife and young son, in the depths of winter at the Castle of Canossa, where the Pope was resident at the time, the Pope refused to open the gate to him.

This inhospitable stance ensured Henry had to endure three days and nights of freezing contrition on his knees, barefoot, wearing only a hair shirt (which would have been prickly and uncomfortable, all the better to punish sinners with) in a full blizzard before His Holiness relented and allowed him in.

Henry said sorry and all seemed to be ease and comfort until the penitent rejoined the real world, where he found that the Pope’s forgiveness was partial and conditional. It allowed the emperor back into the Church, rescinding the ticket straight to hell, but didn’t renew his rights to his throne. 

One war later, Pope Gregory got his comeuppance for his partial, conditional forgiveness when Henry entered Rome as the victor, where he evicted His Holiness and replaced him with a candidate of proven loyalty to the Emperor.

Paddy Jackson is neither barefoot nor wearing a hair shirt, but it could be argued that he expressed penitence in the equivalent of a blizzard, as evidenced by his recent apology and the reaction to it. The first reaction has been “suit you better to have come out with it directly after the trial, like Stuart Olding did, not set your solicitor on the whole world and then wait a week.”

That reaction is to misread the emotional chaos after such a ghastly trial, and to assume that everybody is cool, calm and collected. In fact, in that kind of situation, the only people who seem to be sure of what they’re doing are the lawyers, and so the action they recommend tends to take precedence and win acquiescence.

It’s doubtful that either Jackson or the legal team advising him anticipated front page headlines like the tabloid ones which had Jackson personally threatening to go after people.

The second reaction escalates the vomitous WhatsApp exchanges in which Jackson took part to the disrespect of women. Underpinning both reactions is a vague belief that to forgive any of the Northern Ireland rugby players acquitted of rape is to somehow be complicit in an unpopular verdict or to do further harm to the complainant.

Neither is implicit in forgiveness. Acceptance of Jackson’s confession that he broke the rules he was brought up to live by and would now work hard on abiding by those rules in future would not change the reality, which is that his life and that of Stuart Olding will forever be tainted and overshadowed by the trial which led to their acquittal.

The reproof and punishment, once the prerogative of the Church, have now been delivered to these two men by public opinion. Will banishment follow those two? It looks increasingly likely to. Forgiveness doesn’t seem to be on the cards.


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