Bruce Arnold

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

Why Gaybo should never be voted into the Aras

Do we have a new presidential candidate in Gay Byrne? Characteristically, he is putting his toe in the water to see if it is too hot for him, and waiting for the noise of approval that will send him on his way.

His position is an entirely passive one. Everything he has said so far indicates that, while David Norris was the front runner -- as he was -- Byrne would not be seeking the job. With all that changed, it suddenly seems a good idea, half-decided by the opinion polls, a deal that could be clinched by Fianna Fail support. A gentle mindless canter to the Aras would follow.

If this is where we stand, we need to think again.

At the height of Byrne's popularity as a broadcaster, I wrote, perhaps rather cruelly, that he was "the sluice down which the slurry of Irish social behaviour flowed in a ceaseless and absorbing display of what and how we are".

He was faultless at it, sustaining no self-harm and becoming a good broadcaster.

He was an open channel. All he had to do was turn on the tap. Irish men and women, from bishops to actors, did the rest. We were intrigued, amused, avidly attentive.

If Byrne's character was revealed at all -- and at times we got a glimpse -- it was conventional and correct. He let his guests speak for his show and he knew, as a good broadcaster, not to go beyond that. He did not, for example, get into the Fintan O'Toole territory of judging on "moral consistency".

He just let the slurry of Irish social behaviour find its level. We all listened and watched the riotous cavalcade. We were entertained.

Much later I came to know Byrne in quite different circumstances, those of a shared love of theatre during the time when I attended Gate Theatre first nights. This coincided, in particular, with the time of the Lisbon Treaty campaigns which affected Byrne's political views quite seriously. He was a strong 'No' voter and expressed approval for articles I wrote on the subject.

We never debated at length. These were pre-theatre sound bites. But they were emphatic, and as such abnormal. I thought with the second, entirely improper and dishonest referendum, that his voice, if he spoke out, would have a significant public impact. And I made this point to him. Prominent former opponents of the treaty, perhaps confused or intimidated, were throwing in the towel. Byrne was not one of them.

I should have known better, of course, than to expect Byrne might go public and openly recommend opposition to the absurd Europe into which we were plunging ourselves. It would have been like diving into the slurry of Irish social behaviour. Instead, he kept mum.

This means that if he becomes a candidate, he will do so on the basis of very limited campaign objectives. The most certain of them is his concern that we drive safely on our roads. This is rather like the perpetual invitation in the morning traffic information by RTE where "Please drive carefully" is part of an unnecessary added message.

What else does he stand for? He is not a moralist. He is not an intellectual. He is not a historian, an artist, a writer, a thinker, a pundit. If he is wise, he is silent; what we take for wisdom is platitudinous. If he is representing Ireland in the world, he will be able to tell funny stories; maybe sad ones also. Will it be moving or profound? Will it be as good as the queen of England when she was here? Will he make a head of state? I think not.

What I hope he will do is help to define what is wrong so far with the campaign, a campaign that has not yet started in any serious way. The people of Ireland thought we had started. Indeed, the opinion polls indicated that the matter was done and dusted until it fell catastrophically apart with the humiliation and dismissal of David Norris.

This was a result of public idiocy on a grand scale. O'Toole, in his column last week, thought this was largely the product of "the closet homophobia that lies behind so much of the antipathy to him". Where was this homophobia?

Personally, I cannot think of any homophobic participation in the debate at all. Most of it focused on Norris's poor judgment, his deception over the relationship with Ezra Yizhak Nawi, both to the court in Israel and to the Irish people, and his bias about Israel politically.

O'Toole also refers to Norris's "immense contribution to the cause of equality and decency in this society".

It was not immense. It was subject-specific. In his chosen campaign, for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between adults, the achievement was highly significant. But in other areas he is open to criticism and this led, in part, to his withdrawal.

We need to make a fresh start. If out of nothing more than politeness, we should pay a little attention to the declared candidates -- Michael D Higgins, Gay Mitchell, Mary Davis and Sean Gallagher -- and couple it with serious consideration of how ridiculous at present are our ideas about the presidency.

We have elected six old men for the presidencies, mainly retired from politics, none knowing what they were meant to do or what the job entailed. Mary Robinson only won her campaign because her opponent, Brian Lenihan Senior, was found out in a lie, floundered around in an indiscreet wrangle with Charles Haughey, and still managed a good party vote that was not quite enough to put another tired old politician into the Aras. The result was revolutionary.

Robinson and Mary McAleese pointed the way forward. But the State did nothing to flesh out the character of the role, redefine it, introduce much-needed protocol or give it substance beyond the fatuous hosting of events.

When we did have a really serious event, vital to the future of two neighbouring countries, in which our visitor, Queen Elizabeth, was a faultless blueprint for how we should proceed, we cleared the streets completely of people, invited predictable time-servers and party hacks to the events, and left people bewildered, as before, over what the presidency was for.

Perhaps RTE will become a Presidential Savings Bank. The sports commentator and national treasure Jimmy Magee has been approached by two groups to run. There is Miriam. There is also Joe Duffy. There are more. But if Byrne can satisfy us, then we have been made mad by the gods.