The damage done to Micheal Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fail, following Gaybo’s withdrawal from the Presidential election, should not be exaggerated.
This is, after all, August. The dog days of the so-called silly season can produce their own political traumas.
But, lest we forget, the great challenge facing this country is winning The Economic War and not who will live in the Aras for the next seven years after the October election. Come next month, and the return of the Dail, the main focus will be on The Economic War.
The Presidency, while important to a degree, will be a consideration in people’s lives. But only that.
Right now, the Presidency is providing material for summer gossip, an item of conversation over a drink or a cup of coffee during the traditional holiday month.
And it is not a media creation. The media is merely reflecting the carry-on within the various parties and the campaigns underway by the various Independents.
To suggest, however, that it is an issue which is running deep in the national psyche would be very wide of the mark. At the end of the day, the Presidency is way down the list of priorities for the vast majority of the Irish people.
The Economic War is the priority, while the Presidency is essentially not much more than a source of gossip and of fleeting interest. It is in that context that any damage done to Mr Martin’s leadership must be considered.
When Gay Byrne’s name emerged as a possible candidate, Mr Martin, on holiday in west Cork, rang Mr Byrne who was on holiday in Donegal. In taking the initiative, Mr Martin made what was potentially a clever move, given that Fianna Fail remains on its knees following the general election.
Providing Mr Byrne with a nomination, and supporting him as an Independent, would have seen Fianna Fail off the hook in terms of running a candidate in the election. Mr Byrne would have retained his independence, while Fianna Fail would be seen to have given a platform to a national figure with a long track record as an oustanding broadcaster.
Mr Byrne is of Ireland. He is part of the very core of Irish life, having dominated the airwaves for decades. He is Irish of the Irish. True, he can irritate. It would be extraordinary if he did not. He can be opinionated. Horror of horrors! The man who was Mr Broadcasting for decades has opinions! Well, the cheek of him. How dare he?
Mr Byrne would have been a good President had he decided to seek a nomination and won the day. He is nobody’s fool. He would have instantly recognised the limitations of the office and carried out his duties accordingly. He would have been aware that sounding off on radio and television, or at some media event or other, would be very different from maintaining that necessary Omerta when required to do so in the Park.
He would have carried out the duties of the office, largely ceremonial, impeccably at home and abroad. He would have been a hugely popular figure with the vast majority of the Irish people, because he knows Ireland and its people intimately. He would appreciate the constitutional requirements of the office.
There is a lot of nonsense spoken about the requirements of the office. They are important, but they are not hugely complex. A wily operator like Mr Byrne would have made the transition from broadcaster to President easily enough.
And he would probably have spared us this touchy-feely rhetoric, beloved of some of the candidates already in the field, during the campaign. He would have had the populist touch, speaking in simple terms about the requirements of the office, shaking hands, making speeches, some of them witty, and just getting on with it.
He probably would have won the election. Mr Byrne has his critics. Some of them simply disagree with him on various issues. Others are motivated by downright begrudgery. For some, Mr Byrne was too successful by half..
Mr Martin saw all that. If Mr Byrne was successful, Fianna Fail could say that the party had facilitated the successful candidacy of a national icon. And that would be that.
That was the enticing prospect staring Mr Martin in the face when he picked up the telephone and rang Mr Byrne. The broadcasting maestro must have considered the offer. After all, such an honour, after a glittering broadcasting career, could not easily be turned down.
He would have considered his long road from his modest Dublin roots to the dizzy heights of broadcasting supremo and then, possibly, the Presidency. Obviously, the downside was also a consideration.
Mr Byrne is semi-retired. He would have known that a long and difficult campaign could be controversial. There would be an unwelcome focus on his family, taking from their privacy. For all the perks of the Park, there would also have been a loss of personal freedom.
And, probably, he felt, by way of gut instinct, that he simply did not want the job strongly enough to enter what could have been a bruising contest. Also, what had he not made it following the inevitably difficult campasign? It would have been a humiliating rebuff for a man of 77 years who had a very special place in the hearts of many Irish people.
As for Mr Martin, he had made the offer in good faith, although with political calculations very much in mind. The Fianna Fail statement, in the aftermath of Mr Byrne’s exit, was reasonable. It pointed out that in June Fianna Fail had made it very clear it believed that potential candidates for the Presidency with substantial public support should not be prevented from standing because of the very restrictive nomination process.
As was fully demonstrated in this week’s opinion poll, there was very wide public support for Gay Byrne’s potential candidacy,’’ it added. “Gay Byrne has many fine qualities and would have made an excellent candidate. However, we respect his personal decision not to stand in the Presidential election.’’
Those unhappy with Mr Martin’s move included former Dublin South East TD Chris Andrews. He warned against returning to “poisonous short-termism, the very thing that has brought the party to a historic low’’.
However, Mr Martin received strong support from TDs such as Timmy Dooley, Niall Collins and Sean Fleming. “I don’t think it damaged Micheal,’’ said Mr Fleming. “He made a generous offer and it was Gay’s call.’’
That, by and large, sums it up. Of course, there were political considerations. There are always political considerations when a party leader or party makes that kind of move. That’s politics.
Fianna Fail will decide what to do next about the Presidency next month. It might usefully, at this stage, decide to run a candidate.
Former Ministers Eamon O Cuiv and Mary Hanafin, who are believed to be interested in a nomination, are out. They were part of a Government which left this country in a hideous mess.
However, MEP Brian Crowley is different. He has managed to transcend the party vote and a campaign which focused on the personality and the party could see Mr Crowley doing very well. Irish voters are in a volatile mood. The Presidency is essentially all about personalities. And it does not rank that highly in the thoughts of the average voter.
Fine Gael and Labour can only expect their core votes as of now. So, in some respects, it is all to play for. And that includes Fianna Fail, if it comes up with a candidate not of the toxic brand that can distance himself or herself from the party.
Mr Martin’s strategy did not work out.It was a setback and no more than that. The Economic War is where it is at for this country right not and for a long time to come.
August and the Gaybo candidacy which never happened will pass. Soon, we will be in the run-up to the Budget. The Presidency will be very much a sideshow.