Ask an outsider for a story about Ireland. Invariably, they'll recite that most Irish of clichés: the tale of the leprechaun, the fairy shoemaker, a trickster character with a large horde of gold at the end of the rainbow who promises it all to the naive man, but evades capture and escapes with the loot in the end.
The legend, and the twee commercialised image of the leprechaun, makes most Irish people groan. That doesn't stop us cashing in on it: walk down Dublin's main shopping street and you'll see plenty of leprechaun trinkets and leprechaun buskers greedily guzzling up the tourist euro.
But there's a reason why Ireland has such an uneasy relationship with its most famous story: it says too much about who we are. Because in Ireland, we love the trickster, the slippery customer who promises us everything we want but ultimately gets one-up on us. It's almost as though we have no self-esteem, for we even like to elect leprechauns. This Thursday, it seems like we might do it again, and elect a leprechaun as our President.
His name is Sean Gallagher. He's one of a record seven candidates in the field, and most polls have him on around 40 per cent of the vote, surging ahead of the Labour Party candidate, elder statesman and public intellectual Michael D. Higgins.
Gallagher is famous because he was on the panel of Ireland's Dragon's Den. He exudes confidence, charisma, charm, and leadership. He presents himself as a successful businessman, despite his company having run into serious financial difficulty. He promises to bring jobs to Ireland, even though the President's role is ceremonial and he knows that he can do no such thing.
Gallagher was deeply and heavily involved with Fianna Fáil, Ireland's governing party for most of the last century, including 1997-2011. Fianna Fáil were one of the most successful political machines in the Western world but, last February, were almost wiped out by a furious electorate over their devastating mismanagement of the economy - a mismanagement that delivered a humiliated nation into the hands of the IMF, sent untold billions into zombie banks, and led to massive unemployment.
Gallagher's protestations that he is not connected with any of this, and is running as an independent candidate, are hollow. As recently as last December, he was all set to stand for election for Fianna Fáil. In February, he launched a Fianna Fáil election campaign for a candidate (incidentally, one of the few candidates who were elected for the party).
Gallagher's record of involvement in and membership of Fianna Fáil , so forensically detailed by Irish media and brought to a dramatic crescendo during a live TV debate on Monday night, shows that he bought wholly into their developer and builder- friendly philosophy.
In the most gripping moment of the campaign so far, Gallagher was brought to task by fellow candidate Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister and former IRA commander, and forced to admit that he had delivered money in a brown envelope - the single most potent symbol of cronyism in Ireland - from a convicted criminal and fuel smuggler to the Fianna Fáil headquarters just three years ago. In most other countries, such a stunning revelation, delivered without mercy on live television, would have instantly ended a campaign for the position of Head of State.
Gallagher has also been pulled up over his receipt of a large director's loan which breached Irish company law. His response - that he was paid the money, but it was an "honest mistake" and has been rectified- widely recalls a famous line from Father Ted: "The money was just resting in my account."
In short, he's a chancer. It doesn't matter. Irish people love chancers. They give a nod and a wink to it: "Ah sure, if he can get away with it, good luck to him." That's why we're in such a mess.
In election after election after election, 40 per cent of Irish people - the same as Gallagher's poll figures - have consistently voted for Gallagher's party, a party that prioritises ward heeling over the national interest, that has brought the country to the brink of economic ruin three times; that was twice taken over by what Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole this week rightly called a "kleptocracy", including two Prime Ministers who diverted state resources to fund their lavish lifestyles; and that promises to keep the good times rolling for those who slavishly follow the tribe. During the boom times, it was common to hear people say during that they were involved in Fianna Fáil "for the connections."
The party's implosion covered it with a toxic sludge and those networkers moved on. In our last election, some of that tribe gave their chiefs a slap on the wrist and sent them to the far away fields. Ireland turned towards a party with almost identical centre-right policies, but which was not tainted by corruption. Many predicted the end of Fianna Fáil. Other said they'd bide their time and re-emerge, maybe in a decade or so. Gallagher's election points towards a much shorter memory: it seems that they had to wait less than eight months.
Ireland, or at least the 40 per cent who seem incapable of learning from their past, can't resist that leprechaun, with his illusory promises of gold. They're intent on electing the candidate who embodies the values of mythology's most famous trickster. Horrified opposition to Gallagher's candidacy, from the other 60 per cent, is growing, and has intensified since the debate; Gallagher can no longer be a unifying figure for the nation.
This is Fianna Fáil 's last stand. The party desperately hope that their de facto candidate takes the top job, for they know it would be the beginning of a remarkable turnaround. One widely circulated tweet, in response to the revelations about Gallagher during the TV debate, joked that Fianna Fáil leader "Michaél Martin has just been rushed to hospital with a television stuck to his foot."
They know that if they lose this, it's back to the wilderness. At least until that reliably forgetful 40 per cent come back for more promises and lies. We seem desperate to repeatedly make the same mistakes. But if we fall for it again, so soon, it will be almost as though Ireland deserves everything that went wrong.Suggest a correction