Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Here’s a little mental exercise to while away the coming dark winter nights. Try, if you can, to work out watch percentage of Irish political activity is guff. By guff, of course, I use the scientific measurement of political activity engaged upon to given the impression of activity for its own sake. In other words, a political activity which, if it did not occur at all, would have no discernible effect upon anyone not engaged in the production of guff in the first place.
Now, it’s not unique to Irish politics. Every democratic form of government has its own form of shape throwing. But what is telling about the Irish political system is that our entire political infrastructure, being based upon the British parliamentary model, is almost handcrafted for empty political symbolism. Just consider the fact that this Dail is the most fluid Dail since the great “Put Them Out!” Dail of 1948 where a five party coalition crowbarred DeValera out of office faster than he could you could say “Arriba!” The government has no majority, and is genuinely at the whim of the house. Individual TDs are at their most powerful in a generation. Is the Dail inundated with private members bills being patiently shepherded through the house? Actually, there are quite a few, on everything from the appointment of the Garda Commissioner to creating a new Republic Day bank holiday. But broadly speaking, the Dail isn’t for getting things done. It’s for empathising with voters, or at least looking like you do.
The Dail and Seanad are supposedly the great forum of the nation, where we as a people debate and tease out the great issues. Abortion. Neutrality. Immigration.
Except we don’t, because that’s not how we do things as a country. We don’t have public discourse. Indeed, if anything, we oppose it. Irish politicians still say that the greatest reason to avoid an issue is that it would be “divisive”, as if that’s the worst possible thing one could ever experience.
The problem is that almost anything worth doing is divisive. Storming the GPO was divisive. Rosa Parks refusing to do what the bus driver told her to do was divisive. Refusing to accept the drowning of women as a system of supernatural investigation and legal administration as anything but moronic was divisive.
In 1922 we kept the vast tract of the British legal and parliamentary system because it a) works and b) it’s what we thought what a grown up political system looks like. The problem was that it was designed for the British temperament and British culture, and not the way we actually think as a country.
For a start, we don’t like voicing our real opinions in public. There isn’t an AGM in anything from the GAA to the National Knitting Appreciation Society where actual decisions are made on the floor. It’s all stitched up beforehand, in the case of the knitters, literally. We don’t debate in the forum. We mutter in the pub corner.
From Dail chambers to county councils, the louder the debate, the less likely it’s about something that matters to that body in reality. TDs wax lyrical about potholes in their constituencies, whilst county councillors talk about the suffering of the Palestinian people.
Then there’s the decision making process. Just look at the councils this week, debating setting the Local Property Tax. Marvel as councillors who mere days ago would have broken down in tears at the anguish of spending limitations now fit themselves with beautifully handcrafted brass necks and take to their feet to demand the maximum 15% cut in LPT and the revenue it raises to fund previously mentioned public services.
How do they get away with it? Again, blame the British model, where every individual councillor can blame every other councillor for their decision and thus nobody is responsible. How many people know which parties actually control their county council? The national symbol is the harp. It should actually be a ball of smoke bracketed on each side by a mirror.
The funny thing is that our culture and history provides the solution. Back in the day before Strongbow decided to enter the private military contractor business, we had local chiefs who made the local call, and whom everybody knew made the local call. Indeed, in the Michael Lowrys and the Healy-Raes we still have that cultural hangover, the local big man fixer. What causes such frustration with our political system is that it doesn’t reflect our own political culture.
What would it look like? Directly elected executive office holders, essentially. Local mayors, local ombudsmen, maybe even a directly elected Taoiseach. People who are elected not to lobby or influence or urge, but people who actually have the budget and the power to make decisions.
There’s a whole tranche of Irish politicians who would go cold at the idea, of course. The sort of candidates who see politics essentially as a form of interpretative dance as opposed to actually making finite decisions from a list of infinite choices. Nothing new there.
At its heart, we still have not expelled Dublin Castle from our political culture. We have men (mostly) drawing down ministerial salaries and pension entitlements yet “calling” for things as if someone else is in charge up there in the big castle.
Say one thing for the Big Chief model: he couldn’t say he wasn’t in charge.