KEEPING THE PRESIDENCY IN PERSPECTIVE

30 September 2011 No Comments by The Northern Standard

You can look at all the fuss and furore over who will be the next President of the country in two ways.
It can be seen as a distracting pantomime from real and pressing problems impacting on the lives of the people, or as an illuminating window on to the many diverse threads of attitude and viewpoint that form the weave of the modern Irish nation.
The pantomime theorists have a lot going for them.
The country, plainly speaking, is on its uppers, and a Budget is pending before the end of the year that is likely to prove one of the most problematic in recent history as further measures of fiscal severity are imposed as part of the Government’s strategy to stabilise and resuscitate the critical care patient that is the Irish economy.
It would seem only right, then, for the primary focus of the political parties and the media analysts at present to be trained on what will be contained in the Budget and how it will impact upon the people.
Instead, the next month will see forced into the forefront of debate a contest for the one major office in the country whose occupant will have little or no meaningful influence on resolving the problems that beset us.
Some of the presidential aspirants will try to make the voters believe that they can somehow transform the office into a crusading flagship of national promotion that will apply a Midas touch of economic stimulus and persuade an influx of foreign direct investment our way.
This is a selling point that presumes a naivety on the part of the people.
The presidency is an important office, but its importance is encased in a Constitutional straitjacket that precludes influence, or even the hint of it, on functions assigned to the Government to perform.
So why is it suddenly the only news story that seems to matter?
We in the media must accept part of the culpability.
Elections are Godsends to national print and broadcast news organisations in particular, automated mills that grind out a steady supply of material without the need for much stimulus, material that is both weighty and trivial and feeds the need of every conceivable type of news conveyance from the most august tabloid to the most sound-byte happy micronews slot in the electronic or social media.
The presidential election to the media is like Mothers Day and Fathers Day to the gift card companies – a ‘nice little earner’ ’til the Christmastime of the next general or local election comes along.
But it is not just the newspeople who are players in the pantomime.
Some of the political parties, too, are anxious to claim the prize, at a time when the nature of the candidature as a whole would suggest that there is a strong feeling in Irish society that the office, and the means of securing a nomination to contest it, should be prised out of the grasp of politicians and made more profoundly egalitarian in nature.
There is a sense of flux beneath the surface of the presidential proceedings thus far, a subtle disaffection with the privileges traditionally laid claim to by organised political structures that the politicians are finding discomfiting.
This feeling is likely to be accentuated as the official campaigning gets underway, and may even manifest itself in the ultimate outcome of the contest.
For this will not be a sedate or necessarily a civilised campaign to negotiate for those involved.
The media say they have “hard questions” to ask of at least some of the candidates that demand answers – and it is the important function of the media to ask them.
In furnishing answers, however, the interrogated will find themselves negotiating the sort of minefield that would not present itself as an obstacle in a conventional political campaign.
How do you attack your opponents, or fend off attempts to undermine your own suitability for the office you are seeking, while still remaining ‘Presidential’ and presumably above all that sort of thing, in the eyes of the electorate?
Of the seven declared candidates, Senator David Norris and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness are those currently preoccupying the interrogators as to the suitability of their credentials, but it is unlikely that their rivals will be spared at least a taste of the third degree if the note of inquisitional scrutiny by the media remains at its current pitch throughout the campaign.
One of the fail-safes of democracy is, of course, that, no matter how agenda-empowered or influential the media can be or how manipulative or well-structured the candidates’ campaigns, the ultimate decision lies in the hands of the people.
The public have already exercised quite an influence on the contest – it is in deference to their wishes that, notwithstanding the antiquated processes through which candidacy is achieved, such a large and varied field of names appears on the ballot paper.
Senator Norris, Mr McGuinness, Michael D Higgins, Gay Mitchell, Mary Davis, Sean Gallagher and Dana Rosemary Scallon form an eclectic mix, representative of very distinct perspectives on political, social and cultural matters.
Significant numbers of the population have indicated their wish to have the opportunity to vote for each of them, and the fact that they all, notwithstanding a great deal of difficulty in some instances, have made it to the starting line vindicates the preliminary presidential process in one sense – but it does not disguise its many shortcomings, and in fact underlines its need of reform.
The nature of the field suggests that we are a people of diversity and contrasts – and how this kaleidoscope of characteristics resolves itself through the proportional representation system to elect a new President gives the campaign its chief fascination, and perhaps its justification, because we may learn something very illuminating about the true identity of modern Irish society as a consequence.
But this fascination should not blind us to the fact that there are far more important things happening in that society at the present time, issues requiring very careful consideration and decision-making, issues in which the concerns of the people are equally deserving of being taken on board by those who wield political power.
Let us by all means enjoy the forthcoming presidential election campaign for what it has to offer – but let us for goodness sake keep it all in perspective.

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