Noel Dempsey: Why good people don’t go into politics.

Dempsey: Good, decent, and powerless.

Dempsey: Good, decent, and powerless.

Excellent piece by Noel Whelan here on the disgraceful, shameful cop-out that is the joint Oireachtas committee report on electoral reform. Just think, in Britain they decided in May, have announced the wording this week, and will have referendum in May 2011 on electoral reform. Meanwhile in Ireland we get yet another long finger operation by people we apparently pay to make decisions.

But Noel Whelan raises a bigger point, and it was brought home to me recently at a dinner with political activists. They have all given up and pretty much quit politics. I put the usual argument that is always put to me, and the response was interesting. I said “Surely, you have to be in the system to change it?” The response? “Look at Noel Dempsey. He got to the cabinet with radical ideas on political reform. He got to the cabinet! Higher than most activists ever dream of getting, and yet he is paralysed, can’t do a damn thing on political reform.” It’s a fair point because Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour are one party when it comes to this issue.

One activist made the saddest but most succinct observation I’ve heard in a while, when he told me that he had pretty much a limited amount of time in his life and so why waste it in a political system impervious to change?

Supposing you found a candidate who was committed to political change. Supposing you even helped get them elected. Then what happens? At worst they do a George Lee. At best they become Noel Dempsey.

A plastic bag tax. Have you really got nothing better to do with your time?

It’s easy to say I’m a cynic, but I’m not. Tears rolled down my cheeks when Barack Obama was elected (and I wasn’t alone in that, by the way) but is this country’s politics worth the same committment? Will tears run down anyone’s cheeks when Enda is elected Taoiseach, other than those who have a direct interest in his election? 

The truth is, Irish politics is now the preserve of the “this is quite a good job” crowd. They’ve pretty much won, and the people who give a damn are walking off the pitch looking for another forum in which to do something useful with their lives.

8 thoughts on “Noel Dempsey: Why good people don’t go into politics.

  1. You raise lots of valid, accurate points Jason but I’m left with open question: surely, the solution to all of this is to get involved? If enough people take action, we will see changes. History has taught us that. When you live in a democracy, you have rights but you also have a responsibility to be a part of the solution, not the problem. I know I’m hopelessly idealistic, but perhaps not entirely hopeless?

  2. Jason,

    I’ve put my latest comment on my blog as promised. I can see now when its on the page it is very long, its nearly a novel!

    Anyway this is the link:

    All I hope is that I make you rethink. PR STV in multi seat constituencies is as good as we could have. Any other system gives the voters less say. Your job and my job as candidates is to do a good enough job of encouraging the voters to vote for a change from the Civil War politics of Fianna Fail versus Fine Gael.


  3. Joanna: A couple of points:

    You’re quite right about what are called closed list PR systems. There is little chance that Irish voters (myself included) would vote for a system whereby parties have a list and voters have to vote for the list warts and all. Have you looked at open lists, whereby voters get to vote for individual candidates on the list, and where the candidates with the highest personal votes fill the number of seats allocated proportionately to the party? I think you will find that such a system, operated on a large national basis, would actually increase voter choice. For example, Labour voters who don’t live in Dublin West could vote for you if you were on such a list. Does that mean they have more or less choice?
    AV would probably help FF initally, but it does tend to punish unpopular parties disproportionately, as evidence in our own byelections and Australia has shown. Why not have STV running alongside a national open list, giving voters two votes? A local vote, and a national vote? How is that reducing voter choice? It allows voters a greater choice of candidates and allows for the possibility of candidates being elected on issues as opposed to purely on geographical grounds.
    How is that reducing choice? STV isn’t a bad system. It’s far superior to first past the post. But the problems our country is facing are caused, in my mind, by deputies who are obsessed with their local constituencies because that where the votes are. I don’t blame them for that. I just want some way for people like me, who think national issues might also be important, to have a chance to vote for candidates who might put national issues first. Why should I be denied that choice?

  4. Jason,

    The referendum in the U.K. is to bring their system nearer in line with ours.

    The UK referendum is a watering down of the Lib dem policy to bring in PR STV, in other words our electoral system.

    As someone who made a submission to the report you refer to I wish they had gone further and stated it would be wrong to move from our electoral system and give the voter less say.

    Noel Dempsey wanted single seats to be introduced before the last election. This would have given Fianna Fail a disproportionate amount of seats in the last election. Garret Fitzgerald calculated it would have given them over 70 per cent of the seats in the 2007 election based on their results in multi seat constituencies and modelling that result on what TDs would have won seats if there had been single seat constituencies in that election. I note he has moved from his previous position of wanting single seat constituencies which disproportionately favour bigger partiees, to wanting a mixed system which many people have noted would combined two less democratic electoral systems than our PR STV. His latest proposal would involve a number of TDs elected in single seats by the Alternative Vote (referred to as PR in single seat constituencies but termed the Alternative Vote and similar to our elections in Bye elections and Presidential elections) and the other TDs elected by lists – a la Berlesconi or whatever leader is in charge of picking those that go on the lists but not the mere voter that has the ultimate say under our current electoral system.

  5. Yes, Noel Dempsey is the modern day Sisyphus. But is this the parties fault or lack of popular desire for change. Perhaps the public expectation is nil with or without reform so why would any politician go out on a limb that won’t necessarily work or be wanted.

    Such conversation by activist reminds me of an intervention on the European Convention by a representative of a youth organisation: “What the young people of Europe want is more Qualified Majority Voting.” Yes that’s the problem with activists, reform and the public.

    Like Sisyphus activists believe that they are more clever than the rest and tell the public & political parties what they need to do; the parties happily play the part of Zeus and condemn activists to important reforms: ‘it’ll be tough – like rolling a boulder up a hill – but the change will be huge’.

  6. Writing a blog. The cheapest form of therapy.

    Me, I’m beginning to wander into fiction, perhaps a novel about a Europe that actually has great leaders!

  7. Sadly it’s a phenomenon that is far from being restricted to Ireland.
    There’s nothing/no one to get excited about in European politics at the moment.
    Some idealists try to change it, get into political parties because indeed, to change a system you don’t like, you have to be part of it. But at one point, they get disgusted, frustrated, disillusioned and they give up. Then they focus their energy on other projects such as volunteering in an NGO or writing a blog 😉

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