Previously posted in The Times Irish Edition about 2 years ago. I’m reposting because I think it gets to the nub of many of our problems.
Almost every week one of those head shaking fist clenching what-sort-of-country-are-we issues charges to the top of the national attention span. This week it was a homeless family sleeping on the streets of Dublin. Last week it was the size of apartments being built in Dublin. A few weeks ago it was people on trollies in A&E.
The response is always the same. Bloody politicians. If they’d only give a damn or stop counting their expenses for five minutes we could get this thing fixed. If they weren’t so out of touch. If they’d only care for five minutes about what The Ordinary People want, we’d all be grand.
Here’s the thing: Irish politicians are painfully in touch with what The Ordinary People want. Say what you will about TDs, they can be corrupt, two-faced, stupid, bigoted, but the one thing they can’t be is lazy. If you as a sitting deputy don’t pay constant attention, through regular contact with your constituents, you will lose your seat. There have been a handful of exceptions, nearly all in Dublin South. But the rule stands. Irish politicians as a bunch lie awake at night worrying about what their constituents are worrying about. Not just that. They’re a remarkably flexible bunch when it comes to winning votes too. If there is a thing that will make it more likely that you’ll give them your first preference vote, they’ll do it. Whether it’s a new policy or even possibly sexually pleasuring you, if, in their mind it seriously increases the chance of the scratch on the day, they’ll seriously consider it.
Which is why A&E and urban planning and homeless service provision is the way it is. Not only will those issues not win them votes when they fix them, but the actual act of fixing may cost them votes. It’s the product of the Irish silo mind, the inability to only see the issue you care about and none of the benefits or costs attached to that specific issue.
Take A&E for example. Supposing a plan is put in front of Leo which will ensure that every person who attends A&E will get a proper bed if needed, and get through the process in two hours or less. Great news, you’d think. But as our dashing, reforming minister reads the report he realises that the cost of making the plan work is to radically change the working conditions, hours, etc of nurses, and not in a good Bertie Ahern There’s A Few Quid For Your Trouble kind of way either.
Now he has a political decision. If he implements it, he could cost his party the actual votes of furious nurses, their families, and those odd people in the country who believe nurses can never ever do wrong, possibly because they sub-consciously associate them with nuns. But, on the plus side of his political balance sheet, there’ll be the votes of the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of voters grateful that finally one of their elected leaders has shown the leadership to fix the perennial A&E trollies crisis.
Except there isn’t. If Leo fixed A&E there’d hardly be any votes in it at all, because that’s not how Irish voters vote. They vote, for the most part, in anger or for local bucko who got your granny up the list for her new knee after she had that fall and her in her 83rd year. Reward a party for a job well done? Not in this country because there’s always something to be furious about. Just listen to Joe.
It’s almost counterintuitive, but there are more votes to be had in not fixing problems. You don’t mobilise the vested interest against you, who will actually allocate preferences on the issue. Same with homelessness. Hardly anybody will vote on how a politician deals with this issue. But try and build a homeless shelter at the end of their street and see how quickly it affects your first preference vote. Proper urban planning? Same again. The number of people who vote on the issue will be in the dozens, and they all probably know Fintan O’Toole personally. Safer to do nothing.
The truth is that our electoral system, based on small geographical areas, is almost purpose built to prevent national or strategic issues from being discussed at election time. Maybe there are a few thousand people across the country who care passionately about proper planning of our cities, but under the current system their votes are dissipated across dozens of constituencies and rendered harmless. If we had some sort of national list system it might be a different story, but we haven’t nor will we ever.
Ireland is arguably one of the most effective democracies in the world, because our TDs do have a de facto window into the soul of the Irish people and often see what the people really want. They didn’t want to bail out the banks, comes the angry shout from the jutting chinned hipster at the back with the “Corbyn!” badge. No, but even behind that what the really wanted was stability, and that’s what they got.
Because that’s the real ability of a successful politician: not to listen to what they say they want, which is nearly always said for the consumption of their peers, but to know what they feel, what they really want.
Mouthing off about social justice whilst trousering tax cuts. That’s the real Irish voter soul on display.