Traditionally, you’d have seen him in greatest numbers in Fianna Fail, although he’s recently migrated across to the Blues and even Labour these days. He’ll be in his traditional garb, a slightly too large suit, and a good sensible pair of Clark’s brogues that can either do a bit of canvassing or can polish up for the funeral of a county councillor.
But it’s in the eyes that you can tell him. He tries to do a bit of the “Noel Treacy/Brian Lenihan Snr. Hail fellow well met” thing when he meets you, but he hasn’t got in down yet, in that you can see his eyes looking over your shoulder for someone more advantageous to him. If the junior minister with special responsibility for transferring taxpayer funds from MRI machines to parliamentary party cronies enters the room, he’s gone.
The key to him is, like the Holy Spirit, to be everywhere at once, always looking for an opportunity. You’ll see him doing a few days canvassing for minister X or Candidate Y, always waiting for the opportunity to grab for a co-opted council seat or a special advisor job.
Curiously, he has almost no interest in politics or political issues themselves. If the party line at the moment is the rounding up and extermination of Billy Joel fans, then he’s all in favour of it, until it isn’t. The fact that his mother is in a shit nursing home, or that he’s a closet homosexual, issues that would politicise other people, don’t apply here. That’s just stuff to be hidden from the other young bucks at the cumann meeting because they can smell the blood in the water. Of course, if he finds out that one of them is gay first, he’ll out him faster than he can say three decades of the rosary in front of that bachelor holy joe senator who’s looking for someone to fill his recently resigned council seat. And if the senator needs anything else filled, in return for the seat, he’s amenable to that too.
Watching the vicious attacks that seem to be par for the course in US presidential elections, it got me wondering: Is there any candidate who could unite the great majority of Americans? Given that the great majority regard themselves as Christians, what about Christ himself? Obviously, I’m not talking the son of God, but a figure with the modern narrative and background of Christ in a modern context. How’d he do?
The first question would be, what party would he seek the nomination with? This isn’t as clear as you would think. It’s true, he’d probably be a social conservative and big believer in the Judeo-Christian destiny of the United States. Therefore, he’d have a readymade constituency in the Republican party.
On top of that, he comes from a small family business background, both he and his father being carpenters and contractors, again something putting him into GOP orbit.
But listen to him talk about the rich, and the acquisition of wealth, and he sounds positively socialist, declaring wealth a burden in a way that makes Michael Moore sound like Steve Forbes. Nor is he opposed to welfare or helping the poor. It’s hard to imagine him voting to cut unemployment benefit. What about defence, and all this stuff about turning the cheek and the meek? That’s not going to cut the mustard in the GOP either.
The great irony is that Jesus Christ would be too economically liberal for the GOP, and too socially conservative for the Democrats. Which must say something about America today, although I have no idea what it is.
Even Jesus, the ultimate politician, had critics. Probably bitching that "I don't like fish" and "These loaves could be fresher".
You know the form. Some sort of TV show featuring celebrities. Actors, singers, comedians, and then the odd “celebrity” politician like Edwina Currie. The politician nearly always gets booed. Even the word has become a butt of jokes, a constant put down, a cheap cabaret stand-up line. “I don’t lie much, but then, I’m not a politician!” Ba-boom! Why is that? Why do we hate politicians so much?
Most people, if you ask them this question, will roll their eyes at you. It’s like asking why does chocolate cake taste so chocolatey? It’s such an obvious question. They’re always lying, aren’t they? Are they? It’s true, most politicians do lie, certainly any ones who ever get near having to turn their promises into actual government policy. Some of those lies are pre-planned, like opposing cuts in spending or services that they have no idea how to prevent if they were in power. But most lies are lies of tone, knowingly getting elected on a feeling that is impossible to deliver upon: If you put this crowd out, and elect us, the pain will go away. Not only do they know that they’ll never be able to deliver on that feeling, but would they have been elected without it?
This is the thing. We hold politicians to impossible standards, having demanded that they make enormous promises to begin with. We don’t vote for the guy who tells us that we spend more than we have and so we are going to feel pain until we either pay more taxes or cut our expectations as to what the state will do for us. Instead we vote for the carefully constructed “Of course there must be cutbacks! But we must protect the vulnerable!” which translates as “See! I’m a serious candidate because I recognise we’re in the s**t, but I don’t want you to feel anxious that you or your family will lose out materially, because then you might not vote for me!”
Would we vote for a politician who told us that if we want to protect the vulnerable, which we claim we do, then everybody with an income over X is paying 20% more tax? We’d openly hate this politician, attacking and condemning him for not finding a pain-free solution. We’d elect the opponent who promised the same outcome without the pain, and then be disappointed in him when he can’t deliver. Whose fault is that?
Why do we hate politicians so much? Some because they are crooks and deliberate self-serving liars, but mostly because in them we see what we are, warts and all. They reflect back to us our hypocrisies and unwillingness to deal with the realities of our own lives. Compound that with a media age we live in, where emotion is a justifiable commodity and where requiring an individual to coldly justify in fact why they “feel” the way they do is regarded as “patronising”.
I met a woman a few months ago who hated the Progressive Democrats. She said she would never have voted for them. When I took her through the PD platform, she agreed with more of it than I had, and I’d been a candidate. Even then, she still said that she would never vote for them, but could not give me a reason other than she didn’t “like” them, for no reason she could fathom.
Politicians aren’t angels. They do lie to us, and over promise and over sell their bill of policy goods. But we want to be lied to, because if we didn’t, we’d buy the plain package in the brown paper, and we never do that.
On tonight’s show we’ll be debating (Insert topical government spending here). Mary, you have a story to tell us?
Yes I do. I want to know why government policy isn’t rewritten entirely to address my problem?
John, you’re from a local pressure group?
I am. It’s a disgrace that national policy is based on population and not on giving the people of my area whatever we want regardless of economic cost.
Michael, you’re from the opposition?
That’s correct. Can I just say that this government is worse than Hitler and if we get in everybody will get everything they want because we will buy less staples.
Maura, you’ve a point?
Yes. Other people should pay more tax. But I shouldn’t.
Sorry Mary, you want to add something?
Yes. All politicians hate little babies and if we had no government jet we would have found the cure to cancer. We need a government of the ordinary people, by which I mean a government that will do exactly what my family wants regardless of cost to anyone else.
Irish political history is at its most inspiring when it highlights the visionaries, whether it was lone voices championing contraception and equal rights for women in the 1970s, or those who stood up for the rights of Protestants to raise their children as Protestant in the 1950s. They were condemned in their day, but history proved them right, and condemned their detractors as political pygmies to be scorned and forgotten.
He had the choice. Finally a member of the Oireachtas, he had the power, the personal power granted under the constitution, to make a difference, and sign the nomination papers of a candidate for president. He did not agree with her political views, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that not only did he not agree, but he believed that no one else should be permitted to agree either, and so withheld his signature. The people should not have the final say, in his mind. He should.
It was his legal right. The sad thing is, this was the moment he was going to play his greatest role ever, and he failed. The one unique power the constitution gave him, and despite all the years of pontificating and taking stands and calling for this and that, when he finally had the power to act, completely unhindered, he dropped the pen and ran away, as if to say “Please, take this power away from me! I didn’t realise that having that lovely title and the lovely salary meant I would have to actually take responsibility for things!”
Funny thing is, history won’t even condemn him, because it won’t remember him, except maybe as a minor footnote, one of those people who voted against rights for Protestants or blacks for some obscure reason that they used to justify at the time but is now lost in the sands of time. When they looked for a champion, he stood up to say no. That’s what will be marked beside his name when his grandchildren look up their grandfather for a school project, tabbing the delete key before their friends see it, because granddad wanted to stop everybody else from voting except for the people he approved of.
The Irish National Election Study revealed last week that Irish people would seem to be very reluctant to change from the Single Transferable Vote electoral system. That’s not surprising. One of the key points that those who support electoral reform tend to miss is that weakening the link between citizens and a broker between them and their government actually causes new problems of disconnection.
Instead, we need to focus not just on making the electoral system better, but giving voters a satisfactory alternative to TDs. What that means is that electoral reform on its own will not solve the problem. In fact, it is unlikely even to be accepted by the people in a referendum.
Let’s look at an alternative.
Firstly, we keep STV. It’s not the worst system in the world. But we reduce the number of TDs.
Secondly, we give voters a second bite of the cherry, alongside the constituency ballot. We introduce a second ballot paper in national elections, with a national open list, giving voters the choice to vote for a party list or individual candidates on it.
Thirdly, we bar Oireachtas members from being members of the Cabinet. Let them resign their seats, or let the Taoiseach (who should be directly elected) appoint non-TDs and senators. We have over 4.5 million people in this country. We honestly can’t find ministerial calibre people outside of Leinster House? Really? As for those who say this is undemocratic, that’s nonsense. The people of Mayo don’t elect the Taoiseach, the Dail does, as it would these ministers. If a being a TD is a full-time job, then TDs don’t have time to be ministers. If being a TD is not a full-time job, then let’s pay them a part-time salary.
Fourthly, and this is the important bit: We can’t fix the voting system without fixing the reason people vote for a local grafter: Because that is where the power is. We need to have elected mayors with budgets and the power to fix things in their counties. Do that, and people will go to them.
Our political reforms need to be effective. But they must also recognise what the Irish people both want and actually need from a political system.