The first election campaign I was ever directly involved in was the 1991 local elections, where I canvassed for Jeananne Crowley in the Pembroke Ward, a seat I’d contest myself in the 1999 elections. After that, I campaigned in local, general, European and by-elections, and in a number of referendums. And that’s not counting the internal party elections I campaigned in.
Between 1991 and 2005, when I resigned from the Progressive Democrats, I experienced a fair bit of Irish politics, and came across what I would regard as fairly solid general rules of Irish politics. They are general, there are always exceptions, but broadly speaking I believe they’re true:
1. With the possible exception of Sinn Fein and the Alphabet Left, and maybe in by-elections, there is no longer such a thing as party machines in the traditional sense. Successful candidates have to effectively build their own teams of, for the most part, personal loyalists. Many if not most of the party members who turned up to vote at the convention will not end up knocking on doors.
2. Irish people vote for people over ideas nearly always. People are far more likely to vote for a person they like but disagree with politically over a person they agree with but dislike.
3. It is possible to be interested in the politics of ideas, or the politics of winning elections, and never have anything to do with the other. Indeed it is getting more and more likely.
4. The one characteristic a successful candidate absolutely must have over everything else is physical stamina, and a willingness to keep knocking on doors and talking to people over and over again. It is possible for a stupid candidate to be elected again and again. A lazy candidate will probably only be elected once, and only because he/she is related to someone.
5. The lack of knowledge displayed by voters, and their pride in that lack of knowledge, about how the political system works, and how decisions are made, will never cease to amaze you.
6. By international standards, it is relatively easy for a small group to change things in Ireland if it has determination, courage and organisation. The failure to bring change has usually been because of a lack of one of those three factors. The Provisional IRA and the Progressive Democrats proved that.
7. Irish people take a masochistic comfort in believing that an uncontrollable force, be it the Brits, the IMF, or potatoes, is responsible for their woes, and are comfortable with people knowingly lying to them. No race on Earth savours perceived betrayal and victimhood as much as the Irish. Our national headwear should be a leather “Pulp Fiction” gimp mask.
8. “The Rich” are people who earn €15k more than you per annum. “The Ordinary People” are your friends and family.
9. The fact that we ask candidates the same questions in both local and national elections explains a lot about why Ireland is the way it is today.
10. Many Irish think that the United States consists solely of New York, Boston and Chicago, and cannot comprehend that there are a large number of Americans with little love, and in some cases, hatred for the Irish.
11. Nor can many of us believe that there are huge sections of the world who have little or no idea who we are. In short, “everyone” does not love the Irish.
12. A large proportion of the population have no real idea how government services are funded.
13. Irish public bodies, including the houses of the Oireachtas, exist primarily to protect the terms and conditions of their employees. Their secondary function, if they have spare time, is the task for which they were nominally created, like driving buses, governing the country, that sort of thing.
14. Given the level of centralisation in the country, if activity in the Dail and Seanad chambers and county council chambers were suspended indefinitely, it would quite possibly be years before the public would detect any detrimental effect on the level of services provided by the state as a result. In fact, activity on the floor of the Finnish and German parliaments would have a much more immediate effect on us.
15. The legal system has the same standing to large chunks of the political establishment as witchcraft has to many Africans. If a lawyer says something of positive benefit cannot be done for legal reasons, most Irish politicians surrender immediately, in many instances glad to have a de facto supernatural reason for not doing something.
16. It is almost impossible to find a defender of the Seanad or the European Parliament who would not quite fancy being a member of either body if no better offer were available.
17. There are people who genuinely believe that Ireland would be a better country if there were no private sector rich people living in it. Provided they left behind the big giant “make me rich” machines that every rich person is issued with at birth.
18. There are two conflicting forces in the Irish soul: one believes that sending a turkey in a shopping trolley to an international competition is “gas” and the rest of Europe are dry shites for not voting for him. The other is that feeling we got the moment the music stopped when we first saw Riverdance during the Eurovision. What we settle for, and what we could be.
19. In Irish politics, often the solution is more unpopular than the problem.
20. Irish people abroad will tolerate and even champion stuff they’d never accept in Ireland. Like paying for water.
21. The Irish mind can happily hold conflicting opinions at the same time. Like being neutral but having a US base in Shannon. Or wanting to defend the unborn, but only on the basis of geography.