I was recently on a discussion panel on Newstalk’s “Talking Points” with a new Fine Gael TD, Aine Collins. We discussed my usual hobby horse, the fact that there is almost no difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, and Aine, to her credit, gave as good as she got. But talking to her I was reminded of something I had forgotten since I had ceased to be active in a party. I was struck by how physically tired she was, having left her constituency in Cork at 5:30 that morning.
It’s something that people not involved in politics don’t realise, just how actually physical Irish politics is, because our voters require our elected representatives to be present at all hours across their constituency. Nearly every TD I have known, from across the political spectrum, if they are serious about keeping their seats, have to go from early in the morning until normally after midnight. The funny thing is that it is a vicious circle, in that the public go to TDs because they feel, often rightly, that the Irish system of public administration is set up in such a way as to make it impervious to action unless a TD or senator or especially a minister pulls the right strings. Therefore TDs have to make themselves available to pull the strings, yet the only reason the strings need to be pulled in the first place is the fact that TDs feel it is what gets them elected.
Are they right? Do they need to have this exhausting runaround as the only way of proving their worth to their voters? It is TDs’s fault to a large degree. There is little reason why, as we do when buying books or airline tickets, citizens can’t just enter their PPS numbers online, fill in details, and be told whether they are entitled to something or not, and get the cash sent to their bank or post office account. TDs will tell you that it isn’t that simple, that the social welfare system is not so straightforward, but who designed it? Those same TDs who complain. Are they really saying that the Irish welfare system is more complicated than the international credit card, airline booking, DVD ordering and MP3 track downloading systems combined? What many won’t admit is that many TDs (but not all) will attempt to influence the the system to get people things they are not entitled to. If not, then shouldn’t those TDs welcome an online welfare system?
It is not in our interest that TDs be shattered all the time, nor is it necessary. There are plenty of politicians that the public admire who don’t live in their constituency, but get the admiration because of their national performance. But would the public vote for them? Not if being the constituency ombudsman, running around like a blue arsed fly, is what is on the ballot. But supposing they had two ballot papers, one for the local area and a second for a national constituency? We might see a different type of voter then. The problem is that so many TDs are terrified that if they are not consituency fixers, what are they? How about some class of a member of the national legislature?