RTÉ television is currently half way through their “Ireland’s Greatest” series, a search to find the most outstanding Irish citizen ever. The series is comprised of five documentaries fronted by the advocates of the respective candidates: Michael Collins, James Connolly, John Hume, Mary Robinson and, eh, Bono. All those names are of course pretty remarkable in their respective ways, but the list as a whole is even moreso. Not one of those greats have actually led the country.
Big Mick certainly would have had he not been killed in what are even now contentious circumstances, so his legacy as a leader can only be extrapolated. James Connolly too died before he could exert any influence on the institutions of power. John Hume never held a government posting after briefly being Minister for Commerce in the ill-fated Northern Ireland executive of the early seventies, while Mary Robinson’s role as President was largely honorific. Bono sang "Mysterious Ways".
Not only that, but the candidates are, apart from all belonging to the most recent corner of history, largely left-leaning figures, and not one of them were members of Fianna Fáil, the party that has run the country for about three out of every four year since they formed. Irish voters, as the old Peronist maxim goes, signal left and turn right.
The discrepancy between who we like in theory and who we vote for in practice is enormous. As it stands, the Dáil is inhabited by an unseemly amount of mini Boss Tweeds and souped-up county councillors who aren’t fit to hold Mary Robinson’s briefcase. TD’s so backbench they’re in constant danger of getting nosebleeds or falling off the edge, who’ll vote for health cuts in Dublin and attend rallies about how important the local hospital is back home. And yet, these people get elected time and time again, because they’re Great Local Men. They tend not to be women.
Now granted, every country has their parochial interests and loony-toon members of parliament sent to the capital by their constituents for no other reason than it beats having them at home, but in Ireland the respectability deficit lamentably goes all the way to the top. Since they’ve taken over, Taoiseach and Tánaiste Brian Cowen and Mary Coughlan may as well have done their business in quick-motion accompanied by ragtime music, such has been their disastrous administration. As they stumble from one unforced embarrassment to another and preoccupied by market confidence in the country, they’re either unaware or uninterested in the fact that the country lost confidence in them ages ago. The previous occupant of Cowen’s office Bertie Ahern, a modern day Emperor with new clothes if ever there was one, can currently be seen in a universally-derided TV ad for a tabloid newspaper offering sports tips from a kitchen cupboard. The opposition Fine Gael should have an unassailable lead in the polls but are being held back by Enda Kenny, who while a decent man is much less leadership timber than flat pack furniture.
This isn’t an “It was better in the olden days”, fadó fadó thing either. The abiding memory of John Bruton is acting like Wayne and Garth at an Alice Cooper concert when Prince Charles visited Ireland. Albert Reynolds always looked like the right answer in an odd one out competition when pictured with world leaders. Liam Cosgrave, our angriest and most stubborn Taoiseach, once claimed he hoped the Israelis and Palestinians settle their differences along Christian principles. Charles Haughey, though easier on the world stage than most, saw himself as more of a Renaissance Prince.
Of course we have had leaders of gravitas and international renown over the years like Lemass or Lynch or FitzGerald, but Garret 'The Good' left office 23 years ago, and we haven’t really had a good one since.
Ireland’s reputation around the world has taken such a battering of late that we can’t really afford many more years without some inspiring leadership, to say nothing of all the other things we can’t afford.
When Barack Obama was inaugurated nearly two years ago, nations the world over wondered out loud if they had such a figure amongst them. I’ve no doubt that we have a few potential Baracks somewhere, the shortlist of Ireland’s Greatest proves we can produce those kinds of people. We just need to get better at voting for them.