BEFORE the end of next year we will elect a new president. This presents an opportunity we should take full advantage of. It gives us a chance to express in the clearest terms how we expect to be represented.
It gives us a chance to celebrate the core values we need to return to and protect more vigorously if we are to have any hope of becoming a functioning, equitable society, one of which we can all be proud. A society we might pass to our children with confidence and some small sense of achievement, maybe even a smidgen of pride.
It gives us a chance to say to the world what we wish to be no matter what we have been. The next presidency could be seen as part of a programme of renewal, a programme that recognises that so much has gone wrong but that we have the capacity and the realism needed to recover our equilibrium.
In turn, the election gives the political parties an opportunity to move even farther away from the older, less visible, patronising model of the presidency. It gives them a chance to consolidate the positive innovations introduced by Mary Robinson and President McAleese.
Even more importantly it is an opportunity for all political parties to try to begin to reconnect with a public that has almost lost faith in their capacity – or intention – to build a decent, robust and inclusive democracy. It gives them an opportunity to show that there is more to politics than point scoring and clinging to power no matter what the price.
Every single candidate will have to be more than credible and capable of showing this country in its best light. Though the position is more symbolic than functional the charisma needed to inspire and lift a bruised and divided society should be a prerequisite. This is a very tall order but nothing less will suffice.
Fianna Fáil, if still in power, will hope to avoid a contest to spare their blushes. Fine Gael will find it hard to present a credible candidate as all of their heavy hitters will have their eye on a different prize. Labour may face the same difficulty. The Greens’ time may have passed or not yet come but this does not seem an opportune moment for a Green Party candidate.
This conundrum highlights what a shallow pool we have to choose from. It is not coincidental that our last two presidents were elected despite not having had traditional political careers. Though they were nominated and supported by political parties they were at a step removed from the day-to-day dog-fighting that makes up too much of Irish political life. It is probable that the same path will be followed next year.
The temptation to nominate someone who has achieved a degree of celebrity without showing any real substance or achievement in civic life must be avoided. This is a serious job with a serious challenge at the most serious moment.
There is too the prospect that the election might be used to force change on a conservative and smug political system. What is to stop the broadest possible coalition of citizens nominating a candidate to champion the kind of political reform politicians seem incapable of even considering, much less implementing?
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