Monday, August 15, 2011

A Smiling Public Man: Gay Byrne and the Presidency

Gay Byrne’s withdrawal from the Presidential race is disappointing. Vincent Browne was correct in his analysis in the Irish Times on Wednesday – although a vulnerable candidate in an election, Byrne would have made a fine President.

It all boils down to what it is the President can do. As remarked last week, all this blather about Presidents for the people and re-inventing the office is just that – blather. The President’s role is clearly defined in the constitution and woe betide any President who veers from that path.

A President simply needs to be a safe pair of hands to oversee the operation of Government. Once a President appears to interfere in the operation of Government, the house comes crashing down – vide Paddy Hillery in 1982, and Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh in 1977, may God be good to them both.

Byrne may believe Romano Prodi to be a “fat slug” – an insult that An Spailpín is baffled by not hearing about during the first Lisbon referendum – but he would be enough of a pro to keep that opinion under his topper for the duration of his Presidency.

Think of all the people Gay Byrne interviewed down the years – An Spailpín is willing to beat that he couldn’t stand half of them. He might think Newbridge silver is junk but as long as they keep sending the cheques he’ll keep rolling his r’s in the ad copy.

Byrne could have been the definition of Yeats’ smiling public man as President. Because there is a want in the Irish psyche to have someone to mind us, and it’s only that strange want in the Irish mind that explains why we suddenly place such store in the office of President.

It seems that the public perception of the President now exists outside of constitution definition – how many people can name the Council of State, for instance? – but in another part of the Irish experience; the insecure, needy part that always needs a reason to feel good about ourselves.

The needy part that always scans the British papers on the Monday after a Six Nations weekend to ensure that we’ve got the pat on the head we feel we deserve. Ninety years on from independence, we still need the nod from the Big House.

And that’s what the President does in the eyes of the people. Makes us feel good about our selves. Marys McAleese and Robinson did just that, the former though her human empathy and diplomatic gifts, the latter through expert spin.

That’s why David Norris was so popular, until it transpired he was the only man in Ireland who had learned nothing from twenty years of child abuse scandals. As a political activist pointed out to your correspondent recently, Norris wasn’t favourite despite his being gay; he was favourite because of it.

Electing a gay President would have been another kick in the teeth for the old order, about whom the modern nation feels such intense betrayal. But in Norris’ absence, Gay Byrne would have been the next best thing. Instead of a radical statement of intent, a return to a lovely old blankie of childhood.

The left wing commentariat are trying to portray Byrne as right wing, but his own description of himself as apolitical is the most accurate. Gay Byrne is a cypher in whom the nation sees what it wants to see. Gay’s great gift as a broadcaster and public figure was his ability to sublimate his own ego to let that happen, and never let actual Gay peep through. He was the smiling public man in excelsis.

And perhaps it’s because of that unwillingness to be seen in full scrutiny that Byrne has stepped down. There was a two part documentary about Byrne some years ago on TV that showed us precisely nothing about that man, which is no doubt exactly how he wanted it. After all these years, why lose it all now? There is no second Gaybo for Russell Murphy to burn.