Monday, April 11, 2011

Tipperary North v Dublin South: Who are the Real Eejits?

Mr Michael Lowry, Teachta Dála, was not wrong when he told Dáil Éireann two weeks ago that the electorate of Tipperary North were every bit as sophisticated as any other electorate in the country. If anything, he was being coy.

The electorate of Tipperary North, and of so many other constituencies, see the electoral system as it is, and not as people would wish it to be. The disjunct between politics as they are in Ireland and politics as some people would like them to be is to be seen in its purest form in the Lowry case. It is the different between the world of what exists in fact and what exist in theory only.

In the real world, what actual censure is on Michael Lowry? None. Some people don’t like him. Some people don’t like An Spailpín Fánach either, and it wasn’t necessary to make millionaires out of senior counsels to find that out. But Michael won’t be seeing jail anytime soon. Lowry has got clean away and, if an election were held in the morning, Lowry would top the poll yet again.

That’s the reality, and that’s the reality that people in Tipperary North are voting on. It’s all very well for the commentariat or the blogosphere or three just men on the high stools in Mulligan’s witter on about democracy and standards in public office, but people who live and work in the real world are very quickly disabused of any romantic notions when they see nature red in tooth and claw. They know what works and what doesn’t, and that all else is just so much chat.

When the people of Tipperary North cast their ballots, they are casting their ballots on the electoral system as they understand it, and not as it’s presented to them on RTÉ. They are fully aware that one TD isn’t worth a chocolate fireplace when it comes to shaping the future of the state. That’s all decided elsewhere, and there is no role for a single TD on his or her own in any of this.

The voters of Dublin South – because the great unspoken assumption of Irish politically commentary is that the voters of Dublin South are the polar opposites of Tipperary North in terms of sophistication and, God between us and all harm, intelligence – may think they were voting for “change” when they voted for Peter Mathews and Shane Ross, but neither of those gentlemen will affect their electorates' lives on whit. A parish pumper, however, can, and the evidence is all around.

Because as well as knowing what a TD can’t do, the electorate also knows what he or she can do. They know that a waiting list for a hospital appointment can be shortened from six months to six days if a TD picks up a telephone. They know that issues over planning can be made go away. They know that their local TD can solve a whole load of problems and he’s only one phone call away.

The people of Tipperary North fully understand that the base role of a TD is to bypass the civil service. Does this then make the civil service redundant? Not at all; soft jobs in the civil service are also perks that can be sorted out by the local man.

This is the Irish system. This is how Ireland is governed. We trade in favours, in power, in leverage, in influence. And if a man like Michael Lowry makes a few pounds out of that himself, sure what harm? If it wasn’t him, wouldn’t it be some other buck? The faces may change, but the dealing goes on forever.

Garret Fitzgerald regularly writes in the Irish Times that the nature of the Irish electoral system is such that it plays to the worst aspects of the Irish character, and he was right. We can be a supremely generous people – the generosity of time and effort that people put into their GAA clubs is proof of that. But we are also a people who nod and wink and sort each other out.

Talk about doing away with Seanad or cutting down the numbers of state cars is a bottle of smoke. It doesn’t make any difference. Political reform means stopping and punishing TDs from trading in favours and influence and harnessing the generosity of spirit that gives the nation the GAA. But until that happens, it’s extremely difficult to blame the people of Tipperary North for voting for a man who can get their children into school and their sick into hospital, or not to wonder just what the electorate of Dublin South thought Shane Ross or Peter Matthews would achieve, exactly. Politics begins at home. Not in the Seanad.