I EXERCISE MY democratic right a few months back. I submitted a petition to the Houses of the Oireachtas. It didn’t take too long. There was a scan through some explanatory notes, a couple of check boxes and a form to fill in with three sections. It was easier than many government forms and I felt strongly enough about the whole thing to spend a little time getting the wording just right.
If you didn’t know about this petition thing, you can find out about it here.
My petition was a simple enough proposition, something that most folk wouldn’t have too much of a problem with if it came to pass. I proposed that a new law be entered on the statute books making it an offence to commit perjury to gain elected office.
Politicians promising the moon and the stars
Yes, it was that simple. Now I know that perjury is an offence already, but I wanted to make sure that the next time your friendly, neighbourhood TD came knocking at your door and promised you the moon, the stars and some bright shiny tax reliefs, they’d have to make damn sure that they could deliver all three without any mis-speaking, mental reservation or Programme for Government fudge. I wanted our aspiring political classes to have a bit of cop-on and not be guaranteeing new hospitals, GAA pitches and town-bypasses in the hopes of getting your first preference.
I wasn’t singling out any particular party. I wasn’t asking them to do much more that speak plainly and without guile. All I wanted was this, that any candidate for elected office should be honest and straight with us and that the fibs and falsehoods that have dominated elections for too many years could finally be arrested or the fibber would be… arrested that is.
You’re probably thinking that I was far too idealistic, that I had no sense of the way things are done and maybe you’re right. Maybe I didn’t think the whole thing through, for how could a political aspirant know what was coming down the track if the incumbent government were to secretive or incompetent to show us all the big picture.
Maybe you’re thinking I was naïve and that the culture of elections and of the political class would simply ignore this simple proposition and carry on as normal. In my defence I would have to say that I’ve seen a great many elections and a great many broken promises. Sometimes childlike naivety isn’t such a bad thing, as it allows us to look with fresh eyes.
There are also probably a few who are thinking that this was a cynical attempt to slur the good name of politicians who do so much for us, both at local and national level. That maybe so, but have a look at the local papers and see how many councillors are quoted, with mentions of street lights to be fixed and potholes to be filled, only for their words to be forgotten in a week’s time as we trip over loose pavements in the dark.
And what of my petition? What happened to this proposition to sneak a dose of old-fashioned honesty back into the politics of this State?
Well, a couple of months or so after I submitted it, I got an email from someone on the staff of the Joint sub-Committee on Public Petitions. There was a request to change the title of the petition to the ‘Introduction of legislation to criminalise non-delivery of commitments made during election/referendum campaigns.’ Furthermore they wanted to alter the wording of the petition… to replace the words ‘commit, support or by omission fail to refute an act of perjury’ with ‘make a public promise or commitment which they do not deliver on for reasons that could reasonably have been foreseen at the time’.
Ah yes, the smell of fudge is already pervasive, even before it gets to the Joint sub-Committee on Public Petitions. I acceded to the request, playing for time and hoping that perhaps the politicians on the said sub-Committee (their capitalization, not mine) might see the benefit of such legislation as it pertained to their prospective electoral opponents.
Sadly and not surprisingly my petition failed. I received a very polite letter from the sub-Committee, which you can see below, and I feel it is only fair to quote from the letter, to illuminate the Committee’s views on my petition.
‘The Committee also considered that it is a matter of judgment for each individual when casting their vote to determine the credibility of their candidate at election time. While it may be a disappointment to an individual to feel their candidate had reneged on an election promise the Committee considered that it would not be appropriate to make this a criminal offence.’
In addition the Committee were of the view that there was adequate legislation already enacted to monitor politician’s behavior and the Standards in Public Office Commission has been established to ‘underpin compliance.’
So there you have it. Half a pound of finest butter fudge for us all to share. The politicians police themselves and it’s up to us to spot the ones who are barefaced liars come election time.
It does beg the question though… What if our local TD, councillor or MEP tells a porky to get themselves elected and we fall for it. Who do we complain to when the fabrication is finally exposed? Do we have to wait until the next election and hope that we’ve remembered the broken promises from the last ballot-box fiction? Or do we naively stand and speak out, petition the Oireachtas and mark a few political cards?
As for me, I’m thinking about Andy Dufresne in the Shawshank Redemption. You know the bit where he writes to the Prison Board and gets no response… yes, that bit.