Irish Elect Poet as President
This article was published in the Sri Lankan newspaper, The Nation, on October 30 2011
It has just been announced that Michael D Higgins, a beaming little leprechaun, endorsed by Martin Sheen, is the new President of the Republic of Ireland. Higgins is a poet who has been minister of culture.
The Uachtarán na hÉireann is not an executive presidency. Although it is mainly a ceremonial office strong, personalities have been able to use it cannily. Eamon de Valera used his freedom fighter status (and his newspaper empire) to maintain the totalitarian rule of the Catholic Church. Mary Robinson used her international reputation, mighty intellect and even mightier charm to nudge Ireland into the modern world.
Contenders have come and gone and come back again. At one time, there was speculation that Bob Geldof would put himself forward. In one of his more printable comments, the ex-Boomtown Rat spoke of boom and bust. “The overwhelming feeling I have is one of sadness for the country, and of anger for the incompetence beyond measure, the sheer stupidity and the clear venality which has Ireland where it is now”. Saint Bob early decided it was not worth running.
There was pressure on Martin Sheen to use his experience of pretending to be a president on The West Wing to have a go at running a real country. He has Irish citizenship as well as a Master’s in philosophy from the University of Galway.
Fianna Fáil, the party that has dominated Irish politics for decades, did not run an official candidate. But Sean Gallagher, although rejecting accusations that he embraced his Fianna Fáil past but denied the Fianna Fáil present, said on his own website: “Seán has been a sporadic member of Fianna Fáil over many years”. Gallagher was front-runner at the end of the campaign. Businessman Hugh Morgan alleged Mr Gallagher personally collected a “5,000 cheque from him on behalf of Fianna Fáil.
Rosemary Scallon (born Rosemary Brown in 1951 in Derry) achieved international fame as Dana, when she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970 with the song All Kinds of Everything. Squabbles over money from her US earnings peddling religious music have escalated into nastier accusations. Dana’s brother, John Brown, was a member of her election team. Dana’s sister, Susan, has accused Brown of sexually molesting her, Susan’s, daughter and is repeating the allegations now. Dana concealed the fact that she was a US citizen and therefore constitutionally barred from contesting for the presidency of Ireland.
The contest is open to natives of Northern Ireland even though they are UK citizens. Like Dana, Martin McGuinness is a native of Derry. (I once had dinner with Chris Patten and he told me he had got into hot water with the Reverend Ian Paisley for saying “Derry” instead of “Londonderry”). McGuinness has given up his job in the Stormont government in Belfast to run in the Republic’s presidential election. He is having to field a lot of criticism about his terrorist past as Commandant of the Derry brigade of the Provisional IRA. He claims that he left the IRA in 1974 but others dispute this. Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe snarked at McGuinness’s commitment to draw the average industrial wage if elected. “Why would you need your salary when you have the proceeds of the Northern Bank at your disposal,” Kehoe said. The IRA stole £26.5 million from the Northern Bank in 2004.
My friend, the Reverend Harold Good, is not naive about the horrors of terrorism, but counts McGuinness as a friend following their partnership in the Northern Ireland peace process. Harold told me: “If elected he would be a circumspect, respectful and statesmanlike President… he would leave a gap in our Stormont administration where he is doing a very good job. The media and his opponents are indeed focussing on his past rather than his present. However, as I understand it … he and Sinn Fein see this as an opportunity to ask the Irish electorate to give a strong endorsement to the road they have taken … as distinct from the ‘dissidents’ . They feel a strong vote, whatever the outcome, will send this message.”
McGuinness made a less than helpful intervention in Sri Lankan affairs when he came here in 2006 and talked with LTTE leaders. He may have meant well but was over-optimistic in seeing parallels with the Irish situation. In Ireland, most parties were exhausted enough to give up conflict and to talk. “The reality is that, just as in Ireland, there can be no military victory and that the only alternative to endless conflict is dialogue, negotiations and accommodation”.
He was clearly mistaken.
McGuinness criticised the European Union for banning the Tamil Tigers as a Terrorist Organisation. He said that “it was a huge mistake for EU leaders to demonise the LTTE and the political leaders of the Tamil people.”
We knew well enough that some were demons.
Although it is possible to learn lessons from history, the road to hell is paved with false analogies.