The withdrawal of Fintan O’ Toole and Eamon Dunphy as potential candidates in the next general election has caused some controversy. Declaring they would throw their hat into the political ring, they’ve been derided for pulling out of the race. David McWilliams had also, at one point, declared an interest but subsequently decided that he would ‘stick to the knitting’ of economic commentary.
The Withdrawal: The outward rationale was that the journalists did not have sufficient time to organize themselves when the date of the general election was unexpectedly brought forward. Perhaps they took heed of the old adage: Be careful what you wish for and jumped off the political train before it left the station. Who knows? Whatever the underlying reason, the question is whether Ireland has lost an opportunity to refresh its political talent pool. To answer this, it is helpful to define the role played by a TD.
Two Jobs: The job of a politician is really two jobs rolled into one. At one level it is the creation and execution of complex national policy. A recent celebrity entrant, George Lee, took up office with an ambition to be at the heart of this (and soon discovered that the profession is not called ‘politics’ for nothing). The second part of the job is managing the constituency – securing the medical card for someone’s uncle or getting potholes filled on a minor road in Roscommon. The central point is that, to be successful, you have to be up for both elements of the job. Politicians can’t cherry pick the ‘interesting bits’ unless they deliberately want to serve a single term. While some TD’s might like greeting the Japanese Ambassador to secure inward investment, securing a local authority house for a needy family is a bigger part of the role for most TD’s. But jobs, like bridges, need to be properly designed and I believe that the current role for politicians is badly designed. It’s like asking someone to be a Factory Supervisor and the Chief Executive in the same company at the same time, an impossible split. We will cycle back to that point in a moment. For the moment, let’s get back to celebrity watch!
Local Machine: For the sake of argument, let’s assume that both Fintan O’Toole and Eamon Dunphy were elected. Let’s make the further assumption that they would be smart enough to establish their constituency office in a way which kept the diary packed with ‘social’ events – on what is sometimes referred to as the ‘rubber chicken’ circuit. Over and above political survival, what skills would they have brought to the ‘national questions’? What big idea or series of ideas would have emerged due to their elevation to high office?
Brilliant Communications: Both men are brilliant communicators and can connect, albeit with very different socio-economic audiences. We could envisage Eamon as the people’s champion and Fintan leading the intelligentsia (come the revolution, Fintan would be manning the barricades outside Brown Thomas). But, aside from being ‘on message’, could they have added real value, bringing that journalistic intelligence to bear on key national issues? I think they could because they are both personally secure (and egotistical) enough to focus on national level issues. Issues like how we currently spend our tax revenue.
Current Spending: Every year the Irish Government spends over €70 billion- that’s €1.34 billion a week, 192 million a day or €8 million an hour, 24/7. Whichever timeline you use, it’s a lot of moola. The key question is: ‘Is this money being spent wisely?’ Lets drill down into one example– how money is spent in the area of Youth Work. I have deliberately picked this low-key area, as it’s not normally on anyone’s radar. However, the points made in relation to Youth Work apply across the spectrum of spending. Now, to make the point clearly I have to become a little bit ‘non-PC’. So strap yourself into that swivel chair for the next couple of paragraphs and don’t go nuts.
Disadvantaged Communities: In my experience, working-class communities (sometime labelled ‘disadvantaged communities’) are really excellent at mobilizing political support. Think Tony Gregory or the Jackie Healy-Rae voters. Here’s how it works. The community wants something ‘done’ (a local sports club or an upgraded sewage treatment plant). They, collectively, put pressure on the local TD who makes it happen. The new ‘whatever’ gets built, the local community is happy and the TD is re-elected. Ask any TD who canvasses regularly. They emerge from middle class areas with an ear bashing on policy issues or perceived ethical lapses; they come out of working class areas with a ‘to do’ list as long as your arm. The working class areas ‘use’ politicians to get what they want. Perhaps this is a win-win, the very essence of democracy in action? Well no, it isn’t actually. Not when you view the problems of the country as a whole.
Ireland Inc: Think of the country as a business. A combination of big ‘shark’ problems and small ‘minnow’ problems are faced. The current political system (as described above) sucks TD’s into hunting minnows, an exercise in which all of the available money gets spent in a series of ‘local’ projects often without joined-up thinking. The name of the game is popularity and re-election. The Irish electorate does not reward high level thinking on big national questions. They reward people for stopping incinerators being located in their area and for moving Travelers to some other location. It’s a structural problem. Politicians are pulled like magnets towards supporting local issues. I know from the world of managing organizations, how easy it is to be dragged into the vortex of operational problems. TD’s fall into exactly the same trap and typically focus on the local part of their role to the detriment of national issues. Tip O’Neill famously remarked that ‘all politics are local’ and the veracity of this is known and recognized across the democratic world.
Youth Workers: We can see how this works in practice by looking at an actual example. At this moment in time, there are more Youth Workers in Ballymum than in all of Connaught. I kid you not. How did this happen? Because the local working-class communities (and there are several distinct communities in Ballymun) mobilized political support to have Youth Workers appointed. They have been so successful that Youth Workers in Ballymun are currently tripping over each other, an unsatisfactory situation for everyone – not least for the taxpayers who are overpaying for an underutilized resource.
Structural Reform: A friend of mine is a died-in-the–wool cynic and christened politics, pol-a-tricks. He doesn’t believe any of it. I’m not as cynical as my buddy but I do think that the system needs significant structural reform to overcome this misuse of funds. And it’s really interesting to see that in the published manifestos for the coming election, the issue of political reform is actually on the table for the first time in years. If political reform is an outcome of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, perhaps we will have achieved something lasting. Issues like, should we have one-term politicians, recruiting experts into the Dail, establishing a series of ‘think tanks’ that sit above politics and solving the ‘patients in A&E on trolleys’– could be addressed in more than a soundbite way.
So, overall I’m sorry that Eamon Dunphy and Fintan O’Toole did not run for election. But while they have decided not to put themselves forward for political office, perhaps they can now aim that laser-like intelligence towards fixing the problems that we currently face. Because the best use of intelligence is in building solutions, not critiquing what’s not working. ‘What’s broken’ is low hanging fruit, pub fodder. We’ve now had a long period of collective, negative reflection. It’s time to move on and Eamon, Fintan and the rest of us need to look through the windscreen rather than the rere view mirror. If you are afraid to put yourself forward for election and get in there and change it, perhaps you have lost the moral authority to pour cold water on it from the outside? With power, comes responsibility. And claiming that it’s the sole role of the media to highlight inefficiencies and general skullduggery is to chicken out on the really hard part of intellectualism – finding solutions.