Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Latest Fianna Fail stroke backfires badly on Martin

A friend and well-wisher sent me an email on the announcement by Gay Byrne that he was withdrawing from the presidential race. It contained the comment: "Irish people have been deprived of a chance to show their stupidity." Apart from adding to the end of this the word "again", it seemed a good enough summary of the circumstances to date.

I thought we had run the full course of summer madness about the presidential election with David Norris, but clearly the appetite for savaging our own intelligence and judgment was by no means exhausted by the first run at it, and a second fell into the public lap with the invitation to Byrne from Micheal Martin to run for president. It was a typical Fianna Fail stroke, one that has back-fired badly on Martin.

Gay crawls out of the debris battered but not seriously hurt, wiser about himself as we are about him. He has a rubbery self-confidence, a wise and protective wife, a loving family, and he enjoys enough genuine public respect to go on as before. Being president would have been a huge burden, difficult, taxing and more confused in its challenges than ever before. Campaigning would have exposed him to unwelcome intrusion into the whole of his life.

If good can be drawn from recent hysteria it may be in the growing recognition of the seriousness of this difficult choice. We have to get a bit more serious. I don't bank on this happening.

Gay Byrne's claim that Ireland was being run by "mad people in Brussels" was an exaggeration that approximated to the truth. His judgment on Europe was firm and sound throughout the Lisbon votes.

He was less sound on Norris, expressing without explaining his belief that there was a view "among the people" that Norris was "dumped out of the presidential race through underhand means". And he went on: "They are not quite sure how, they are not quite sure why, they are not quite sure who, but that is what they feel."

This may have been a more polite re-run of the quite unjustified slur on the media of a homophobic campaign against the senator; but was it true and did Byrne correctly interpret the view 'among the people'? How did he know? Running a presidential campaign on these speculative lines would have been perilous.

The truth is that Norris disqualified himself on grounds of poor judgment, economy with the truth, lack of transparency and improper use of his position. There was also his self-importance, about which he had exaggerated ideas.

In Byrne's case there is no denying the self-importance and the contribution Byrne has made to this country. The human package was just not right for the job.

Vincent Browne was one who failed to recognise this last Wednesday in 'The Irish Times', a view possibly clouded by a long-standing friendship. He summarised Byrne's fitness for purpose by crediting him with "the values and instincts of the Irish people: decent, conservative, cautious, respectful" and claimed also that Gay had "more than anybody else" of these qualities so far in the presidential race.

The last fortnight has hardly shown the Irish people demonstrating any of these values and instincts. They are basic, predictable human qualities, like telling the truth and brushing your teeth each morning. We are not yet looking at the stars.

Fortunately, we have time for a makeover. We can set the bar a little higher, we can try and rein in the political absurdities that have fomented some of the hysteria, starting with Fianna Fail.

Their party leader made a fool of himself, ringing Byrne, but hedging his bets. Martin and Byrne have little in common. Byrne has successfully kept himself clear of any political identity but he was and is a scrupulous judge of the bad politics that bedevilled the country under both Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, involving Martin centrally on the Europe issue.

The absence of regulation has twice cost Byrne dearly in financial terms. Politically he became totally enraged at the puerile behaviour of Fianna Fail, not only in wrecking the economy but also in bending the knee to the EU bureaucrats.

Calling them 'mad people' was a mistake of emphasis. They are not mad; they are indescribably incompetent, making up European government as they go along and making it up badly. They are doing so without any democratic mandate. They are dangerously out of control and Byrne's assessment of all of this is shrewder than one might imagine from his words. But the presidency is not the place for dealing with the problem.

We elect Dail and Senate politicians to do that and this brings the argument round to the Independents and uncommitted members of the Oireachtas who have behaved appallingly in respect of their constitutional role as elected representatives. The basic argument of the worst of them in respect of their political duty seems to be to facilitate the electorate in making the choice of president.

The Constitution thinks otherwise. It quite clearly vests in elected representatives, at both national and local level, a clear filtering task of judgment and decision-making in coming to a good and reliable choice of candidates. We did not elect them to power in order that they should shuffle off the first responsibility to come their way, that of defining who should go before the people.

Of course it is a political decision and favours the parties big enough to have their own candidate. The two in question, Michael D Higgins and Gay Mitchell, are, in my judgment, just as 'decent, conservative, cautious and respectful' as Vincent Browne thought Byrne was. Their selection is gross unfairness to candidates still waiting for confirmation. But these two men are properly there, both in terms of the Constitution and also of the application by their parties of reasonably sound assessment and judgment.

Little of that applied in the lop-sided support for Norris that was determined to shift the burden of judgment which the Constitution expects politicians to exercise, directly on to the people.

So now we have to pick up the pieces and start again. As my friend in his email went on: "Who will RTE and Pat Kenny come up with now? Micheal Martin tried to pull a typical Fianna Fail stroke, backing a winner, and they had it well organised, testing the water first." So what, I ask, will the journalist-promoters do now?