Bruce Arnold

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

Don't repeat old mistakes when casting your vote

As I listened to the seven candidates, on Saturday afternoon, copying each other in their supposed devotion to the sectarian national prayer, the Angelus, from which they claim they get 'comfort', I realised what a mess this presidential election has been. They did not all mean what they said.

What their collective instinct was guiding them towards was not faith in the Angelus prayer. It was the danger of upsetting the vote of devout Catholics whose Christian beliefs are still part of our political life and, indeed, part of our Constitution. So the seven declarations were not about prayer. They were about votes.

The frantic hunt for these votes, by seven candidates, has been subjected to analysis by a relentless media. To its credit, the media has covered all shades of dishonesty. Lies have been told about political allegiance and political views. There have been unanswered questions about private and business funds, evasion, misrepresentation, and absurd claims of presidential intentions not possible under our law and the Constitution.

Rubbish has characterised statements about presidential pay and pension, intended programmes of action, relationships with the Government and the Taoiseach. The job has been turned into an inverted auction of self-punishment bordering on the absurd.

Where we see honesty and integrity among candidates we find the best of them at the bottom of the supposed order of public support.

The earliest candidate in the field, David Norris, disgraced himself over the Nawi affair, his letters, and his views on under-age sexual relations with adults. This lost him electoral team members and media support. He withdrew from the race. He was then put back in.

The extraordinary choice by Sinn Fein of Martin McGuinness as presidential candidate introduced bitterness over his past leadership of the Provisional IRA. His inexhaustible capacity to disown the murders of servants of this State led to denials that were not credible. He has failed to do his duty in bringing to justice those who lost their lives while engaged in combating the evils brought into it by the organisation McGuinness led.

His political amnesia on the one hand, and his exaggerated claims about his contribution to peace on the other, were topped by a self-serving definition of how he would occupy the Aras, one that rivalled the humility of St Francis.

Sean Gallagher started as an Independent busily effacing the clinging tentacles of Fianna Fail. It was an inadequate, flawed error of judgment and failed. He claimed dissociation from the party that does not concur with the facts.

He went on to make statements about his early career in farming, his business affairs, and his achievements. These were unpicked and demolished by the media. Miraculously, on grounds that seem to have come from the fairytale world of TV celebrity status, he has remained the supposed favourite of the people -- measured, of course, by the opinion poll rulings that have largely governed the campaign.

The two political candidates for office, Gay Mitchell and Michael D Higgins, have maintained a measure of integrity largely unsupported by the dynamism and human appeal that the position demands.

Michael D Higgins -- the epitome of 'Whatever you say, say nothing' -- presents the public with an elusive image. It is stripped of the harsher, more extreme political views he held during a long party political career. He has become an attitudinising figure, gesturing, smiling, paternalistic, smug.

At heart he is only imaginable as a parody of the office. Unfortunately, in this he matches himself with the inability of the Irish public to do that kind of imagining at all.

The Irish people have floundered their way through David Norris, the early public darling and finished up with a devoted Fianna Failer, Sean Gallagher.

Gay Mitchell has been a truthful and relatively outspoken candidate, impressive as the campaign progressed but tragically not possessing the 'X Factor' in his genes. He is the product of a ham-handed approach to this election by the Fine Gael party.

Mary Davis has been truthful. She has brought to the presidential campaign a truly vocational approach to the job. She has suffered more than any of the others from unfair media emphasis on her supposed financial benefits in public life. Her single-minded success, sustained through her working life, was turned by the unfair whips used to punish her.

Dana started too late, delivered too little. For someone whose emphasis on family and Christian values was a paramount aspect of her campaign, the embarrassment of a divided family was, to say the least, unfortunate. It was made significantly worse by the publicly aired threat of legal action.

The candidates rightly criticised and condemned the media, at its worst sloppy, under-researched and biased. But the worst of the media is not all of the media and the Irish public should be grateful to the better, more investigative and more challenging writers, commentators and interviewers who have placed before the electorate a dismal and, at times, damning set of revelations.

What then of the Irish people? Given the fact that this is an electoral process that has still to run its course, there is some hope that a revision of the predicted path to the election of our next president will not follow the opinion poll magnet but will produce some fundamental rethinking of the woeful circumstances that face us at the outset of this final week.

The best president we can possibly get is one of the seven. There is no alternative and they are not impressive. But there is a potentially better outcome than the path indicated by the opinion polls yesterday. Putting a ring in the noses of the Irish public and leading them to make bad choices is a fundamental collective error that has prevailed for too long and too often in our democracy.

We have to remind ourselves that we gave power to Fianna Fail under Bertie Ahern, three times in succession, making sure to be sure that he would wreck us. And he did. Brian Cowen completed the process with the assistance of Brian Lenihan.

Any democracy that can do that to itself needs its collective political head examining for brain disease or brain tumours. We are now facing a similar act of national felo de se. So think hard between now and Thursday.