Previously published in The Times Ireland edition.
I was reminded recently that this year’s local elections mark 20 years since I dipped my toe into the electoral pond as a candidate for the Progressive Democrats in Dublin City Council elections. Looking back on the adventure that was my running for election in the Pembroke ward I think I can say with accuracy that be 94% of the voting electorate who cast their first preference vote for candidates other than me displayed far more sense and insight into my potential as a city councillor than I knew myself at the time.
With the benefit of hindsight, I now know that I would have been a pretty bad councillor. It’s not that I would not have approached the job with good intentions or a lack of seriousness but rather that I now recognise the huge volume of work that is required to be a successful, that is, re-elected public representative.
There was an RTE radio report recently where the interviewer met with a number of young city and county council members who were all stepping down after a single term. The message that came from them, from across the political spectrum, was that public Life in Ireland is getting harder and at the same time nastier and it is primarily the fault not of politicians but of the electorate themselves.
The stories told were a sharp juxtaposition with my own very limited experience as a candidate. When I ran I encountered very little hostility on the doorsteps. I did have one or two bustups, particularly with one individual who wished to know my position on abortion and was not amused at my response that I was completely opposed to Dublin Corporation carrying out abortions.
But for the most part I felt as I ran that seeking public office was still regarded as a respectable path for any citizen to follow.
Listening to the RTE report left me with the clear idea, which I have suspected myself for sometime, that a large number of voters in this country, possibly a majority, now regard seeking public office as an admission of a character or moral flaw.
That if you’re running for election you are probably on the make.
Of course, the standard Irish rule applies that those people have suddenly have a completely different view if a close friend or family member decides to seek office, but as a general rule running for election is seen by many as a licence not to apply the common standards of decency and respect that you would for any other stranger.
The retiring councillors pointed out facts that I hear regularly from various friends of mine who hold or have held public office.
That the public has huge and often inflated expectations of what sort of constituency service they are entitled to whilst at the same time begrudging those same public representatives anywhere near approaching the sort of resources and indeed salary that would be commensurate with what is a very intense indeed stressful job.
Large numbers of the public now expect county councillors, which is a part-time job with a salary at the moment of less than €17,000, to basically provide a full-time service. Large numbers of the public don’t realise or care that many county councillors actually have real jobs as well.
I can tell you that that I know myself that there is no way that I could be a county councillor without sending myself round the twist trying to balance a full time job with what is in effect a second full time job but without the resources.
I’ll be the first to admit, by the way, that county councillors themselves are to blame for the public’s belief.
The reality is that we should have fewer county councillors but pay them full time.
Councillors also deserve blame for this not happening. They elect three quarters of the Seanad and yet for some bizarre reason choose never to use that power to at least insist that the Senate make local government reform a priority for government. A Seanad that refused to cooperate with the government could get action fairly swiftly if it so decided.
The other reason I don’t regret being elected to Dublin city council was the realisation that so much of our political system is designed around elected officials having no power but instead the power to “influence”.
I don’t dismiss the importance of having the power to influence indeed knowing who to ring in the right council department is an acquired and worthwhile skill in itself. But the problem remains that decision-making power on a day-to-day basis is not at the hands of elected members and that is the fault primarily of the elected members themselves as members of the political system and the parties that actually decide what local government system we have in this country.
There was a report on television last week about Dublin City Council housing department unveiling their plans to model Dublin’s future housing provision on a model used by local governments in Austria. The officials from Dublin city council gave an interesting and thoughtful summary of their proposals and there was certainly a lot of detail worthy of discussion.
What was really striking was that in this area, housing, a huge area for both the council and for political debate in the country itself, there was not a single elected office holder in the report.
Mere weeks before elections to that very Dublin city council, and it was as if something as important as a regional housing policy is too important for a bunch of our politicians to be getting into underlines a problem with local government itself in Ireland.
Here’s the awkward fact: councillors work very hard but often as a use of time it’s a waste. Meeting where actual decisions aren’t made, or symbolic grandstanding, where the city council discusses the ins and outs of the Palestinian problem.
I do respect politicians for the amount of work they do and must do if they wish to be reelected. What I don’t respect is politicians who spend their lives blocking meaningful reform of local government and then having done so go on to whine about how hard the job is.
As candidates they are entitled to respect and dignity on your doorstep as they come knocking in the next few weeks. It’s always been my experience as both the candidate and as a canvasser that disagreeing with someone on the doorstep does not always have to be a negative or aggressive or even unpleasant experience.
Some of the nicest voters I ever met were people who told me bluntly why they were not going to vote for me but did it in a very civil way.
So be civil to candidates on the doorstep.
They’ve almost certainly left families at home for long periods of time in order to run for election. At at the same time don’t hesitate to tell them that the pressures of office they may be feeling and for which they may wish some sympathy is entirely the fault of the political system and parties that they have chosen to represent.
They are entitled to your respect. Your sympathy they have to earn.