A friend of mine recently made a point to me about how depressing it is listening to analysis of the upcoming election. He was listening to a piece of RTE Radio where a constituency-by-constituency picture was being drawn. It was apparently full of the usual “X is based in Mullingar, and so should be able to benefit from transfers from Y, despite the fact they’re from different parties” and he pointed out that listening to the report, you would have no idea that the country was going through the biggest economic crisis in its history.
I know exactly what he meant. In Ireland, it feels like the politics of ideas and the crisis and what sort of society do we want is on a completely seperate track from the politics of elections. You meet people who are livid about the situation and yet will happily vote for government TDs and then return to demanding that something be done about the state of the country.
The thing is, it’s very easy to complain about our clientelist culture, except for the fact that we have all benefitted from it. I have asked TDs to intervene on issues for me, and they have, and as a result I feel a certain loyalty towards them even if I don’t agree with them. It’s simple decency. The only problem is that it is completely stunting our political development.
There is nothing wrong with having an elected representative to act as your champion with the state. It is, after all, an idea taht can be traced all the way back to the Tribunes of Rome. Our problem is that we have mixed-up that role with the role of setting the values our society shall be run by. On top of that, we have the problem that our geographically-based system means that local will nearly always trump national. That’s why the Healy-Raes and the Lowrys are returned whilst the Higgins and Springs and McDowells, men of ideas and values, more often than not have no place in parliament. And don’t even try to elect someone like Colm O’Gorman to champion an issue that most Irish people rate as being of national importance.
We’d be better off electing a local ombudsman in every constituency, barring TDs by law from actually handling individual queries, and electing them in large regional constituencies that will allow for values voters to pool their votes and at least have some chance of electing a few TDs, and reflect the reality of how we actually see politics.