Belfast Telegraph

From Gay to grey, Aras race needs a bit of glitz

The Republic's presidential election is shaping up to be a contest between government parties, says Henry McDonald

Given their warm relationship with the House of Windsor, some cynics in Dublin have suggested that the McAleese family be bestowed with the divine right of kings and take over Aras an Uachtarain in perpetuity.

The cynicism reflects a creeping boredom over the race to succeed Mary McAleese as the Republic's first citizen. Because the colour in the contest has undoubtedly faded to grey since the two Gays pulled out of the contest.

Messrs Gay Byrne and the most-famous gay in the Republic, David Norris, have - for very different reasons - withdrawn their names for the presidency.

Norris was nobbled over past controversies regarding a former lover convicted of sexually abusing a Palestinian boy; Byrne cited family reasons and his age (77).

The end of Norris' and Byrne's presidential ambitions has left the field dominated by nominees from the political parties who are, to be frank, without much star quality.

The two main front-runners are both representatives of the parties currently in the coalition government, Fine Gael and Labour.

The Labour candidate is the veteran left-winger, international peace campaigner and poet Michael D Higgins. Fine Gael's man is another Gay, namely Gay Mitchell, one of the party's stalwart campaigners in Dublin.

Higgins is well-liked across the political spectrum, although his elevation to the presidency might raise some eyebrows across the Atlantic in Washington.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for instance, Higgins and other Irish parliamentarians were guests of Saddam Hussein's regime during a fact-finding mission aimed at preventing military action against the Ba'ath dictatorship.

Already pro-American voices in Dublin and beyond are raising Higgins' record in opposing US foreign policy - even when it resulted of late in the overthrow of one of the world's worst tyrannies.

Expect, over the coming months, those same voices raising objections to Higgins' perceived anti-Americanism and the potential of Third World radical politics alienating even the Irish-American community.

Nonetheless, Higgins has always been regarded as someone principled and untainted by the deluge of corruption that engulfed the political system from the 1980s onwards.

During my career at the old Evening Press in Dublin, in the early 1990s, I first came across Gay Mitchell. It was during the period when he was on the high-powered Dail public accounts committee. which scrutinised how Irish taxpayers' money was spent.

What impressed me about Mitchell was his forensic attention to detail and his willingness to upset interest groups from whatever quarter in pursuit of value for money for taxpayers, who, at the time, were handing over up to 40% of their wage-packets to the government.

Yet what Mitchell enjoys in terms of technocratic ability he slightly lacks in terms of personal magnetism.

He maintained a base for Fine Gael in Dublin even in the darkest days through hard-slog constituency work and a reputation for being a clean pair of hands.

Glad-handing, however, is not his strength and he lacks the tactile, populist touch of McAleese, or her more liberal predecessor Mary Robinson.

Mitchell's spin-doctors and media managers have a lot to do to make him more connective to the people - especially beyond his Dublin power-base.

It is surely a sign of the times that among all the potential candidates for president the issue of Northern Ireland will hardly register.

Of course, all of them will make consensual noises about the need to shore up the peace process and power-sharing settlement in the north; of the importance of keeping up McAleese's outreach programme to unionists and conveying the message that the Good Friday Agreement is a model unto the rest of the world in terms of conflict-resolution.

Unless a candidate with enough X-factor enters the race, it seems, at this stage, that this will break down into a contest between the two parties united in government.


From Belfast Telegraph