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The little guy is your only man

October 25th, 2011

Angela is a Labour Party supporter – but it’s not that which makes Michael D. the best choice for the next Irish president

Sean Gallagher seems a nice bloke, but surely Michael D. Higgins, after a life as a public representative, activist, artist and social justice campaigner, deserves to be president of Ireland more than a mere businessman?

Last night (October 24) the seven candidates in Ireland’s presidential election fronted up for the final all-in debate of the campaign. Screened by national broadcaster RTE, the encounter was adjudicated by Pat Kenny, RTE’s highly-polished senior man. It was an entertaining affair on several levels, at once more light-hearted and yet more intense than the meetings earlier in the campaign, when most of the candidates had a hope of success (the two women, Dana and Mary Davis, became also-rans fairly early on).

Gallagher, way ahead in three polls of voting intentions taken at the weekend, got a rough ride. He was skewered on two issues: an amount of €89,000 which was paid into a personal rather than business account some years ago; and, probably worse from an electoral point of view, his role as a money-collector for Fianna Fail during the dying days of the Celtic Tiger.

Martin McGuinness (who has faced a relentless tide of questions over his role in the IRA) dared to suggest that Gallagher’s past as a bagman for the former party of God was ‘murky’. Murkier than murder? But Gallagher, normally straightforward and unruffled, was obviously fazed by the questions, and dithered between ‘not remembering’ whether he had collected a €5,000 cheque and claiming that the person who said he had given the cheque was an unreliable witness with a chequered past.

The question was whether all this will damage Gallagher sufficiently to snatch victory away from him this Thursday [October 27] when voting takes place.

He’s an affable, straight-talking guy, and has garnered a lot of approval from young people and closet Fianna Failers, as well as some of the more overt kind. The Fianna Fail candidate who dare not speak its name.

My question is whether a man, pleasant as he may be, who has a background almost entirely as a businessman, with no political representation or across-the-board engagement, is what Ireland needs or should have as a president at this stage.

Isn’t business, capitalism and all its discontents, a busted flush right now? To posit that Ireland needs a business-oriented president ignores the reality that the president is a figure head, not an active politician who can make laws, or launch more than aspirational and token initiatives. He/she doesn’t have the budget to do so, especially in these ruined times.

Michael D. Higgins is not the most thrilling candidate personally (especially for young people who regard him as older than the hills – though he is, as is becoming a cliché to state, a year younger than Sir Paul McCartney). He seems a bit humourless, but then so do Gay Mitchell, Dana, McGuinness… But he is a man with a whole lifetime there to see as a campaigner for social justice and a great advocate of the arts, and what they can do for the human spirit.

How do the Irish want the world to see them? Under Mary McAleese, it has been as a dignified, intelligent but warm persona. With someone like Michael D (setting aside the obvious leprechaun jokes) there is intelligence, commitment, aesthetic and creative force, and a serious-minded quality that can only transmit good things about the Irish, and qualities that are under-emphasised in the hard-drinking, easy-going stereotypes.

David Norris would also be a grand symbol of the nation – if he hadn’t shown such questionable judgment several times during the campaign, not referring to things he did years ago, but to how he handled the often pusillanimous and shameful attacks on him.

Gallagher is an appealing guy and would perhaps be fine as a trade ambassador. But, without emotion, it seems there is really only one choice for Ireland on Thursday.

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