An ambiguous attitude

Speaker's Corner
An ambiguous attitude

We mock the practice of politicians kissing babies, yet are horrified if they can’t make small-talk”


IN the summer of 2001, I hitched a lift from Ballyhaunis to Roscommon, where Mayo were playing Westmeath in a football championship qualifier. One of the 13 people who brought me part of the way was a man who spotted me languishing somewhere near Frenchpark.
“Are you in college?” he asked. “Yeah, I’m studying history and politics,” I replied. His eyes lit up. “Politics,” he mused. “Tell me all about politics. I know nothing about politics, but I’m going to be a candidate in the next general election.” The man concerned obviously learned something over the next ten months, because the following May he captured a Dáil seat in Longford/Roscommon.
Much of politics may be dull, but for good, old-fashioned bloodsport, you can’t beat a general election. The welcome demise of e-voting ensures that, for now at least, we’re guaranteed the wonderful drama of the long count. We love the thrill of the chase too. Indeed, for political junkies, the foreplay of the campaign can be almost as thrilling as the climax. (Not everyone agrees, of course. One man told a colleague last week that he ‘couldn’t give a s**** if there was no general election’.)
Many people have a tale of long-dead relatives getting posthumous voting cards. This year we may encounter the opposite problem: denying the franchise to the living. I was among thousands of people who received a letter from Mayo County Council telling me that a claim had been lodged to have me removed from the electoral register. As a 26-year-old Irish citizen resident in the constituency, I was surprised and promptly despatched a letter contesting the claim. Others got correspondence to the homes they have lived in for 30 years, warning they were about to be taken off the register because they had moved house. You couldn’t make it up.
Virtually every third level course on Irish politics devotes at least one lecture to the ‘indefensible weakness’ of local government. Yet it’s tempting to suggest that county councils have been given one nationally important job to do in the last 100 years (update the electoral register) and they failed miserably.
Irish people have an ambiguous attitude to politicians. We complain about how little the Dáil sits, then ‘phone the local TD to get the pothole down the road fixed. We demand that they get worked up about the things that bother us, then make fun of their overblown rhetoric. My own personal favourite relates to the councillor who addressed a hunger strike commemoration and, gesturing to the group behind him, said gravely: “There are men on this podium who fought and died for Ireland.”
We complain that all parties are the same, yet dismiss anything that distinguishes them as an election gimmick. We mock the practice of politicians kissing babies, yet are horrified if they can’t make small-talk. We want our legislators to spend their time debating great issues of state, yet laugh if they appear too far removed from ordinary people. Garret FitzGerald was presented with a red and white teddy during a trip to Cork in the 1980s and thought the colours represented the Polish Solidarity movement.
We spend much of our time giving out about politicians, but once every five years, our elected representatives must come cap in hand. No matter how wacky your world view, they are obliged to listen to you and avoid saying what they really think of Joe Duffy. So we rant and rave when politicians come visiting and then seem surprised that the practice of going door-to-door appears to be dying out. Frank Cluskey actually blamed a poor Labour Party performance in one particular election on ‘too much canvassing’. Asked by Ruairí Quinn for an alternative, Cluskey suggested what he called the counter-canvass. His idea was simple. “You knock on every tenth door and when they answer, you shout ‘f*** you’. They mightn’t vote for you, but at least they’d remember you called.” Democracy: ya gotta love it. Let the fun begin.