Published on the 13th April 2010 by the University Observer
The recent exit of George Lee from Dáil Eireann sparked huge amounts of commentary from irate politicians about his lack of stamina, apparent arrogance and inflated sense of self-worth. It also ought to have raised additional debate, however, on the role our politicians play, why we elect them and their duty to us as their constituents.
Lee’s departure has begged the question of what personal qualities one needs to be a politician. Must one have a natural popularity, charisma and baby-kissing charm? Is it an ability to smile and answer hazily in the face of thorny questions? Or is it the association with a political party which identifies itself by its original side in the Civil War? The skills that cause one to be elected are not necessarily the skills that are vital to run a country effectively, and therein lies some of the issues that Ireland currently being forced to recognise, given the situation in which we now find ourselves.
Before we ridicule the cries to position Michael O’Leary as Taoiseach, and revitalise the Irish economy to the extent that bathrooms nationwide have a PAYG (pay-as-you-go) tax on their usage, we must admit that there is an argument to be made for leadership experience, independent of the political party or the Oireachtas. A recent Eurobarometer poll showed that the Irish have the fifth-lowest level of public trust in their political institutions of the 27 European countries surveyed. Currently Cowen and company are spending €1m per hour more than is being earned through taxes. The Irish citizens’ new attainment of a depraved bank and two building societies – along with further stakes and €81 billion of property loans through Nama – is costing four times what the UN estimates to be the total cost of rebuilding Haiti
Looking at a government where ministerial positions can be awarded to candidates without background or interest in their appointed departments, it is easy to see how areas like health and education are suffering. Observing a situation where the government’s head honcho earns the fourth highest salary in the world for a government leader – all while preaching frugality and cutbacks – we see a palpable demonstration of a clear disconnection from the voters and citizens of Ireland. We have suffered from the deficit of democracy: that what wins elections is not what runs a country.
To install a minimum requirement of workplace experience – say, ten years – would mean that ideally politics would become less about a lucrative power-wielding career path, and more about a desire to change the world one lives in. To pay ten years of taxes would be to understand the wish that your tax actually gets used for something constructive. In the judiciary, one must have ten years of legal practice behind them to qualify for a post – merely to facilitate an ability to be fair and rational and make good, connected decisions. To run a country, where judgements are being issued to govern all aspects of life, surely this connection is all the more important. Surely ambassadors with experience of all facets of living are vital, rather than just the expertise of politics.
But is a lack of experience the only concern? There is a blatant shortfall when elected TDs like George Lee fail to have their expertise and knowledge harnessed by a government in crisis, and instead are criticised for failing to play the political game – a game which seems to involve sitting pretty while waiting your turn. The Dáil has long been an assembly point for certain professions; barristers, teachers, and at one stage an auctioneer.
When catastrophe calls, it’s up to the people in a democracy to make a change. It’s the citizens’ job to demand experience from politicians, and it would be in the citizens’ power to call a constitutional referendum to limit the salaries of TDs, so as to attract candidates with an interest in the issues at play rather than the money to play for. Those who can make a difference should be encouraged to try, and the government should be inviting ideas from not only their followers, but the opposition, who by their very nature are supposed to object to what is going on.
The Irish political system is failing, and it is failing because our two main parties have essentially identical aims and goals. Instead of the standard split on outlook of issues (normally left and right-wing), they’re split only because of a disagreement that happened ninety years ago. The Irish people need to start judging by experience and results, and remembering that political promises are empty, and regardless of party, all we can be sure of is what has already individually been achieved.