It’s too small. Hear me out.
One of the unusual quirks of Irish politics is the outsized role which Ministerial transport plays in public anger. One of the easiest digs you can level at an Irish politician is that they’ve gotten themselves a nice comfortable seat in the back of a Ministerial Mercedes (or Toyota prius, these days).
Last week, there was the usual, predictable, kerfuffle about the Taoiseach flying first class on an Aer Lingus flight to New York to address the United Nations. He took a commercial flight, one assumes, because the Irish Government Jet – a relatively old LearJet 45 – is ill-suited to transatlantic travel. And yet there are those – many of them I suspect my readers – who seem to think that the Taoiseach should have travelled down the back, sharing a row of seats with a couple off to the Big Apple for a week’s holiday.
Much of this anger, I think, is about an inability in the public mind to separate the office of Taoiseach from the person who holds it. Readers will have divined by now that this writer does not think Mr. Martin is a very good Taoiseach – and indeed, I look forward to the day when he is once again a private citizen, booking flights on skyscanner like the rest of us.
For the moment, however, he is our Taoiseach. Our head of Government. And he was not flying to New York on holiday, but to address the assembled delegates of the United Nations. When he flies to London, or Brussels, he is flying to conduct the business of the Irish nation. We do not have to approve of him as our representative in order to accept that as head of Government, he represents all of us overseas.
Irish people are almost uniquely addicted, I think, to the idea that politicians should live and act exactly as normal people do: A few years ago, a photograph of President Higgins standing at an ATM in Dublin City Centre, waiting to withdraw cash, went viral, and was cited as evidence that the President is uniquely a man of the people. But this is the same President who has no issue travelling within Ireland by helicopter. And nor should he: He is the President. His arrival into a local town somewhere in the country should be an occasion. The children who meet him should remember it. The sight of the Presidential Helicopter landing in a field opposite a school is something that inspires a bit of awe and reverence in the children who witness it.
I wrote last week, about the Queen’s funeral, that grandness and ceremony play a vital role in public life, and that Ireland should try and get better at that. Not aping the Monarchy, but understanding the role it plays in promoting a sense of national pride and reverence. There should be an effort made to promote the idea that the President and Taoiseach of Ireland are important people: That they represent us all on the global stage, and that their arrival to New York or Ennis or anywhere else is a notable event.
The Americans, for example, have understood this and taken it to extremes for years: Wherever President Biden goes, he goes in an Air Force Boeing 747. On the ground, he is met by an absurd armada of 40 or so vehicles, which have been flown ahead of him. American soldiers and policemen come with him, rather than trusting his protection to the country he is visiting. The effect this creates, psychologically, is not to be downplayed: When the President sweeps into some place, nobody is in any doubt that the most important man in the world has just arrived.
When Micheál Martin arrives in New York, by contrast, in the business class section of a standard Aer Lingus flight, the sense is the opposite: Here lands a person of almost no consequence at all.
Is that really the image we should be going for, as a country? Surely there’s a happy medium between Biden’s nonsensical motorcade, and Ireland’s national addiction to insisting that her leaders are on a par with the lawyer sitting beside them on a plane, off to have a meeting about intellectual property?
My own view is that the country should have its own plane, for official transport, and official business, and that this plane should be a little larger than the barely used Learjet that we currently have. Deck the thing out in the national colours. Put a big Irish harp on the tail. When it lands abroad, let nobody be in any doubt about who has landed, and who they represent.
The thing the Americans understand, by the way, that we do not, is this: The Motorcade and Air Force One are not really about the majesty of Joe Biden. They are about projecting awe and reverence for the United States. Just as the funeral last week was not really about Elizabeth II of Windsor, but about Britain’s sense of itself as a country. What does it say about our sense of ourselves as a country that our leaders, by contrast, are expected to fly economy?