Sparks rare in dull presidential campaign

Sparks rare in dull presidential campaign Presidential candidates pictured with Pat Kenny on Virgin Media's Big Debate Show: (l-r) Peter Casey, Seán Gallagher, Liadh Ní Riada, Pat Kenny, President Michael D. Higgings, Sen. Joan Freeman and Gavin Duffy. Photo: Virgin Media

I find it hard to get enthused about the presidential election or the blasphemy referendum.

In the case of the election I suppose it’s because the incumbent is so far ahead that he seems a shoo-in and predictability is always a drama killer. It certainly would be more engaging if only the new candidates were competing, but I haven’t been inspired by the challengers. It may be just me, but words like ‘lacklustre’ and ‘underwhelming’ spring to mind as I reflect on the whole campaign. For me the media debates have failed to ignite, and sometimes I just watch or listen largely out of a sense of duty – as a voting citizen and as a media columnist.

Pat Kenny’s Big Debate on Virgin Media One on Wednesday of last week kicked up a few sparks. Presenter Kenny asked some searching questions, e.g. probing Michael D. Higgins on his arguably extravagant expenses and expenditure – especially the use of a jet to get to Belfast. That issue gained some traction – on Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1) last Monday morning this was one of the major focuses of the campaign coverage, with apparent contradictions between Mr Higgins’ explanations about security requirements and a PSNI statement issued over the weekend.

Also on that ‘big debate’, Pat Kenny put it to Joan Freeman that as she supported the ‘No’ vote in the abortion referendum she did not reflect modern Ireland. In doing so he did a rather dubious rounding up exercise, inflating the ‘Yes vote’ from 66% to 70%, and downgrading the ‘No’ vote from 34% to 30%. Freeman’s vote (she is the only candidate to declare a ‘No’ vote) has been made into a weapon against her throughout the campaign, though more by commentators than fellow candidates. Her answer that night was similar to how she answered previously. Responding to the “out of step” charge she said she did represent Irish families, who were divided on the issue, and said this was a matter of personal conviction (strong) and that it had nothing to do with her public duty (weak!).

Fellow candidate Gavan Duffy stood up for her, saying it was “shocking” to suggest she couldn’t be a representative  of the people because  of her ‘No’ vote. She thanked him but said she didn’t need rescuing, which came across as ungracious, but presumably she was setting out her stall as an independent woman.


I was reminded of this during an item on last Sunday’s This Week programme on RTÉ Radio 1, when the topic was actress Keira Knightley’s statement that she wouldn’t let her daughter watch certain Disney movies because of the typical princess narrative – young ladies getting rescued by their prince! I wondered how such a fluffy item got space on one of RTÉ’s flagship news programmes.

This was especially curious when they didn’t have an item on the upcoming blasphemy referendum, another issue that has failed to ignite, partly because it’s a referendum the public wasn’t looking for, partly because there are no concerted campaigns for either side and maybe also because the media are not giving it much attention.

In one useful debate, on Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1) last Thursday, Emeritus Professor of Communications at DCU, Colum Kenny, argued in favour of a ‘No’ vote – the present measure acted as a deterrent to rancorous and acrimonious discourse, including online. Leaving it there would do no harm, but removing it would send a signal, would be seen as a permission for and encouragement to hate speech. Minster Charlie Flanagan thought a ‘Yes’ vote would show we were a modern constitutional democracy that valued free speech.

Another debate was on that night’s Prime Time (RTÉ 1) between Senators Ronán Mullen and Ivana Bacik. It was a worthwhile, though hardly comprehensive treatment of the issue. Sen. Bacik argued that blasphemy laws were outdated, were used in some countries to oppress religious minorities, and that such issues are better dealt with nowadays by incitement to hatred legislation. Sen. Mullen had a two-pronged approach – he thought the referendum was unnecessary and wasteful – if we voted ‘No’ we’d be sending the Government a message that they shouldn’t be asking silly questions. He thought that deliberately insulting people’s religion was not good for social harmony and that our current law was a wise balance between respect for people’s faith and rights to free speech.

So now, over to the wise voters.

Pick of the week

Human Zoos
EWTN, Sunday, October 28, 4pm, also Thursday, 9am
The dehumanising exhibit that presented indigenous people as ‘missing links’ of evolution, and the courageous group of African-American ministers who worked to stop it.

Daphne: A Pen Too Sharp
RTÉ1, Monday, October 29, 11.15pm
The story of  Maltese investigative journalist Daphné Caruana Galizia who was assassinated in a car bomb attack.

Unreported World
Channel 4, Friday, November 2, 7.30pm
Exploring the plight of some of the one million children caught up in the world’s biggest migration as they flee poverty, hunger and medical shortages in Venezuela.