As I sat down to write this column, I realized that trying to sum up the current crop of presidential candidates is impossible.
Between conspiracy theories about everything from vaccines to German discount supermarkets, commitments to dressing up as Marilyn Monroe should the national interest require it, promotion of stag hunting, and bizarre proposals to install red haired harpists in every village, it’s more of a setup for the best ever episode of Midsomer Murders than a ballot paper.
The image of Michael D Higgins as a wise old village elder among this cast of characters is not one he’s going to have to work very hard at, and I suspect he’s well aware of that. Currently, a debating strategy of “eye roll, followed by knowing look straight to camera” should really do it for him in any televised contest.
Reports from the first local authority meetings to host candidates’ pitches – Meath and Kildare – were both mildly amusing and slightly terrifying.
Some of what councillors heard was pleasant, vaguely positive and utterly meaningless – perfect presidential fare, in other words. Things about raising the national morale, highlighting social issues like mental health, lighting candles and all that feelgood kind of stuff. So far so good. Homelessness and the importance of rural Ireland and standing up for marginalised communities.
All very worthy, and all the kind of thing Presidents can talk about because they have no budget and no authority, and they are there to make us feel good about ourselves when visiting dignitaries are around.
Of course, councillors don’t help themselves by asking stupid questions like “what are you going to do for Meath”? As you well know, councillor, if you’ve ever bothered reading the rule book, they’ll do absolutely nothing for Meath because they don’t really do anything for anywhere except smile, shake hands, make Government approved speeches, and host garden parties and Mrs Bucket style candlelit suppers.
So answers like “a luas for Connemara” (yes, this was a real one) and “more promotion of the Meath coastline” are what you get when you ask stupid, irrelevant, time-wasting questions.
Councillors who say they are entertaining this crap for the sake of democracy could do with good belt of the democracy stick next time they go before the public.
After the inane and the downright stupid, however, was the kind of thing you know Russia is paying professional trolls good money to get trending on Twitter.
Kevin Sharkey is reported to have said rural Ireland was being ruined by a German pincer movement of bypasses, roundabouts, and Lidls and Aldis. He also wants the countryside to be repopulated with Famine themed villages where tourists can witness people cooking bacon and cabbage.
Another potential candidate, Sarah Louise Mulligan, said she would dress up as Marilyn Monroe to welcome Donald Trump to Ireland, should the national interest require it.
I suppose we should be relieved that none of them claims (yet!) to have been abducted by aliens, like Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, a US congressional candidate who ‘refuses to be defined’ by her childhood visit from extraterrestrial beings.
Presidential elections are funny old things. They seem to be shaped by factors that have absolutely nothing to do with them – world events, social media bubbles of various kinds, reality TV shows, and cold-case investigations into mysterious crimes.
They bring out of the woodwork people who neither know nor seem to care that none of the above has anything to do with the job for which they are applying. They can’t promote policy, fix broken systems, highlight corruption or anything else that the Government or the free press is supposed to do. When the President makes a political point about anything, it is with the approval of the Cabinet, or it is entirely outside of his or her remit. Michael D has sailed close enough to the wind on this on occasion, but because he knows how to do it (being a politician), he’s avoided major scandal.
The current discussions about the Presidency don’t show modern Ireland in a great light.
From the days of former revolutionaries competing on the basis of their historical deeds on behalf of the republic, we have reached a point where the contest looks like the opening weeks of Britain’s Got Talent.
Those are the entertaining episodes in which people whose parents were too kind about their tuneless warbling compete to win a contract to sing. Just because your Mammy liked your singing doesn’t mean anyone else will. And just because your parents / spouse / life coach told you to reach for the stars in life, doesn’t mean you’re capable of reaching them.
There is a real bang of “I can be anything I want” off the crop of candidates, hinting strongly that perhaps giving gold stars to every child who competes in a race, regardless of merit, is a bad idea with bad outcomes.
Even when democracy is the filter, people must realise that most jobs require a basic qualification. For all the failures of our elected politicians, they may be accused of venality, self-interest, and a failure of imagination, but very few of them are nuts or downright stupid.
To be President, one should first have to fill out a pop quiz on the Constitution and be automatically barred from running upon failure to identify the actual duties of the President. That would root out at least half of the current bunch of time wasters and let our county councillors go back to the important work they do making motions of thanks to GAA players and blocking local developments.
Then, a simple question to weed out the rest. “Are you a politician?”
The answer, of course, is yes. Because what defines a politician other than the act of running for elected office?
They are all politicians, whether we’ll be affixing ‘aspiring’, ‘failed’ ‘successful’ or more choice words before that one.
Then who will we have left?
The Herald, 30.08.18.