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The Irish Presidency and the vision thing

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Presidential candidate Independent Sean Gallagher and his wife Trish arrives at Google HQ in Dublin ahead of a on line and radio debate.Photo:Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland



HERE we are with just a couple of days to the vote for our next president, and the front runner by a distance is a relative nobody with a slightly hazy past.  
Sean Gallagher has never been elected to anything (other than internal Fianna Fail party positions), and he's never made a significant speech about anything.

Beyond a few recent soundbites, no one really knows what he stands for or believes in.  His achievements and record to date are so inconsequential that him running for the presidency is, in my view, an insult to the office.  

But of course he's been on a popular TV show, so in today's crazy world that qualifies him to represent the country.  If it wasn't so serious it would be funny.  

Not that it matters that much, as we keep saying here, since the president of Ireland has so little power anyway.  But it's both laughable and deeply depressing that a small time businessman with Fianna Fail connections who made most of his money during our dodgy building boom and hasn't really done anything else of note, is about to be elevated to the highest office in the land.

Unless the polls have got it completely wrong, of course.  Gallagher is so far out in front in all of them that it's hard to imagine they can all be that wrong.

But a disastrous performance by Gallagher on the last TV debate between the candidates on Monday night could change things.  He struggled badly to answer questions about his company and personal finances and also about his role as a fundraiser for Fianna Fail.

The studio audience jeered and laughed at his attempts to position himself above all this "negative campaigning."  The fact is he has real questions to answer and he's dodging them.

His performance will have made many viewers think twice about voting for him. So there's still a chance that the Labor candidate, Michael D. Higgins, might catch him if he gets enough transfer votes from Fine Gael supporters.

Higgins is not perfect either, but at least he can point to his experience as a government minister and a lifetime spent as a university teacher and a politician who has been a leading voice in the country's intellectual life for decades.  He may be a bit emotional and there may be a touch of the eccentric professor about his persona, but he's credible presidential material.  

Gallagher, in contrast, is a salesman with not too much behind the sales pitch.  He was one of many Fianna Fail back room boys who rubbed shoulders with Bertie Ahern and even Charlie Haughey over the years.

He was active in party organization and fundraising, like a lot of other small time businessmen and builders (he runs a company called SmartHomes which puts cable systems in houses).  He was involved in fundraising dinners in which builders and business people got to share a table with senior Fianna Fail politicians.

But there is no sign in his record of any political achievement or policy role, or of the vision thing that one expects a potential president to have.

Yet the three main opinion polls published over the past week all put him way out in front on around 40%, with Higgins second on around 25%, Martin McGuinness third at 15% and the rest trailing badly.  

It is, as I said, just possible that Higgins could do it.  But it will take a massive swing among voters in the last few days and the transfers of votes from eliminated candidates will be critical.  
Those of you with long memories will remember that something like that happened back in the 1990

Presidential election when Mary Robinson, also backed by Labor, became president. When the Fine Gael candidate (Austin Currie) was eliminated almost all his votes transferred to Robinson, pushing her ahead of the frontrunner Brian Lenihan Senior.  

If enough detail emerges in the next few days about Gallagher's activities in Fianna Fail to take the shine off his image as the cool, clean hero, history might just repeat itself.  But that depends on Higgins getting well above 30% of the first preference votes.  

We have nothing against Gallagher in this column.  lt's just that one expects a future president to be someone of real substance rather than a Mr. Average who got where he is in this campaign simply because he was on the panel of the Dragon’s Den TV show.  

What's next?  President Louis Walsh, courtesy of The X-Factor?

Back in the real world, there are growing concerns about the financial crisis in the Eurozone and on the impact that could have on our fragile stability here.

Even assuming that the French and Germans can stop arguing long enough to agree on a major package of measures to be announced this week, the future looks uncertain.

The problem for French President Nicolas Sarkozy is that the French banks are up to their necks in Greek sovereign debt.  A major write down of that debt will destroy France's triple-A credit rating and with it Sarkozy's chances of re-election.

So Sarkozy wants agreement on a European rescue fund of over a trillion euros rather than the few hundred billion that is there at the moment.

For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, she knows that whatever is agreed will end up being paid for mainly by German taxpayers, and at this stage they have had more than enough.  Whatever chance she has of staying in power depends on not upsetting them even more.

The malaise that is dragging Europe down in general is a lesser version of the madness in Greece, where for years living off the state, not paying taxes and bribing officials to get the services you need became the norm.

The rest of Europe is not that bad, but the huge deficits run by the other weak countries in the euro zone are similar -- and Ireland is no exception.

It all comes down to the culture of entitlement that is there, the belief that everyone has a right to a certain standard of living, housing, health, education and so on.  If the individual cannot earn it, then the state must provide it.  And if the state cannot afford it, you march and protest and demand your "rights."  

The problem for Ireland, and for much of the rest of Europe, is that people have a very inflated sense of rights that many European states cannot provide without running huge budget deficits.  Productivity is too low, costs are too high, manufacturing has migrated to the Far East and unemployment is too high.

It's hard for people to shake the habits and expectations they formed during the good times; they still want the same lifestyle even though there's not enough money to pay for it.  They feel entitled to a much higher standard of living than, for example, workers in the parts of the world that actually produce most of the manufactured goods we use these days.

Solving this conundrum, while still managing to hang on to power, is the puzzle facing political leaders in Europe today.  It means taking control of national budgets and trying to bring state spending into line with tax revenue.  This has implications for the biggest spending areas of government.

In Ireland's case, for example, welfare (over 30%) health (30%) and education (almost 20%) take up around 80% of all state spending.  Cutting those areas back is not easy because people are immediately affected and emotive cases arise.

But there is huge spending that is questionable, and the state is seen both as a soft touch and a bottomless pit.  One much publicized welfare case here recently showed that an out of work Dublin family with four children (one with special needs) is getting just over 90,000 a year.

A more typical level for a family with four kids with both parents out of work, including rent supplement, would be around €45,000.  But even at that level, there is clearly a strong disincentive to work.

The plethora of extra state payments that are available in addition to basic welfare for being out of work has resulted in a section of our society in which being on welfare becomes a job in itself, an acceptable norm.  

Health is always an emotive issue, but the fact is that we have probably the most expensive and least efficient service in Europe.  Just last week it emerged that some nurses were doing their week's work in three 12-hour shifts.  

Our hospital consultants are among the highest paid in the world.  Yet we have queues at A&Es and waiting lists for surgery.

There is one interesting link between health and the third big area of state spending, education.  We are producing a couple of hundred doctors here every year, at huge cost to the taxpayers who fund the universities, yet we have to import doctors from India and elsewhere because our own graduates don't want to work in our dysfunctional hospitals.  

Education in general here is extremely expensive (teachers earn much more than their counterparts in the U.K. for a shorter school year) and it's still not producing what we need.  We have a serious problem with math and science, which are way behind what is required in today's jobs market.

And the situation on languages is a disgrace.  We are still forcing kids to spend hours every week learning
Irish when call centers here have to hire young adults from the rest of Europe, who are multi-lingual, to fill their jobs.

Those are just a few examples.  The general point is that there is a vast amount of state spending here which is
misdirected, unnecessary, and fails to produce the desired outcome.

Changing that here, like in the rest of Europe, is the biggest challenge facing us.  That's the way the crisis in Ireland, and in the euro zone, will be solved.

With another draconian budget just a few weeks away in the first week in December, this is a far greater issue than anything that has emerged in this presidential campaign.

In the next few years, however, having a president who can help to hold the country together as this painful adjustment takes place would be a big help.  Which is where charisma and the vision thing are important.
Sadly, they are in short supply among the candidates before us.

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