1. Our electorate are policy averse, leading to politicians who also avoid stating positions that involve taking a side in a political argument. I have canvassed thousands (I’m not exaggerating) of houses over my political life. The vast, vast majority of doorstep queries were on local matters, which are important, but if we’re not going to discuss policy in a general election, then when? What is particularly extraordinary in the Irish psyche is that there is no connection between the level of taxation and government spending. Every single party, from the former PDs to People Before Profit all run (or ran) on the same fundamental platform, that your taxes can be low, but the level of public services can be high, and let’s not talk about the fiscal Bermuda Triangle in the middle.
2. Most of the 1000 elected officials in this country have little actual power. Curiously, this has been a deliberate policy of FF, FG and Labour in government, as it has created a class of politicians who treat the decisions of government as some sort of natural phenomena over which they have no control: Witness local councillors “calling on/condemning” the county council they are members of. In Saudi Arabia, the king is regularly petitioned by nomadic bedouins for action on different issues. The difference between the feudal desert kingdom and Ireland is that the king doesn’t shrug his shoulders and say “Sure, you know what them fellas up in Riyadh are like!”
3. It is nearly impossible to point a finger at anyone in government and say “This is your fault and I’m going to vote you out because of it.” Someone recently pointed out to me an injustice inflicted upon them by clampers, and asked me who would be politically responsible: The Dept of Transport? Dublin City Council? The Ombudsman? The Dublin Transport Office? The Clamping Company? Who do you GET at election time for this? A TD will say that it is not his fault. A councillor will say it is not her fault. So who carries the political can?
4. The closer Irish candidates get to power, the less willing they are to use it. I’ve known a fair few people who have gone into politics, and what is almost universal is the way the system grinds them down. They don’t become corrupted, they just become inert. It’s one of the reasons why I think term limits might be a good idea, to at least keep churning the talent. Don’t get me wrong, they work hard, especially with their constituents, but the reason they have to work so hard with their constituents is because in many cases the fundamental systems don’t work properly, and if politicians aren’t going to change that, who will?
I’m not engaged in an abstract, theoretical political wandering here. When I was a candidate, many moons ago, I too got a sense of satisfaction out of resolving an issue for a voter. But I came away with the sense, and it applies now, that aside from the material benefit to the candidate of actually winning an election, most electoral political activism is a pointless waste of time. I know that many of my readers are candidates, and will protest, pointing out the good work they do in their communities helping real people with real problems, and that’s true, but they could do the same amount of good work working for a community group. But trying to get someone elected to a powerless office? What’s the point? It’s just not a good use of someone’s time.
Having said that, don’t discount personal loyalty. I’ve helped a candidate whose party I found objectionable, but did so out of friendship, and I’ll probably do so again in the future. But what a system? Where a candidate has to rely almost entirely on the loyalty of friends and family because (as so many do) the political ties are so loose or just plain unattractive?
The one sliver of hope that I’m curious about is the proposed office of Dublin Mayor. This will be unique in Irish politics, a directly elected executive office. Will it turn out to be a dud? Quite possibly, especially as it seems to have no budget and modest powers to begin with. However, what could be very interesting will be how the first holder of the office handles himself/herself. They will become the focus point for every whinge and complaint about daily life in the city, and will have to respond to it, and saying that “Sorry, I’ve no power” will only trigger the response “Well, piss off then!” It has the potential to either, through sheer force of will, make the city and county managers pay attention, or else get into a public fight with them over who runs Dublin, which would be a debate worth having.
Note: this was originally posted in 2010, hence the optimistic comments about a Dublin Mayor. The bastards just break your heart, so they do.