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'Power is a drug': Alan Kelly's recent interview showed the true colours of Irish politics

We need more than narcissism and hubris in Irish politics, writes Tom Clonan.

Tom Clonan

OUT WITH THE old and in with the new. The 31st Dail is dissolved and the General Election scheduled for Friday the 26 February.

This will be the shortest General Election campaign in the history of the state. Irish citizens will have a short window of opportunity within which to ponder Irish politics and Irish politicians.

Our parliament is unusual by EU standards. In terms of gender, a mere 27 or 16% of our TDs are women. This is a worryingly low statistic. In addition to being male-dominated, the age profile of our outgoing parliament is also on the high side. Across the main parties and among independents, the average age is close to fifty.

At Cabinet, the age profile is higher again, with the most crucial decision making undertaken by the triumvirate of Enda Kenny, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin – with an average age between them of 65.

So. Ireland’s principal political decision makers at cabinet are, in the main, white, male and by definition – geriatric. This demographic is not representative of the wider population. This may in part explain why issues such as women’s reproductive rights, caring for the disabled and elderly or childcare and homelessness among children have not been prioritised by these particular elder lemons.

Disconnect between political class and citizens 

It may also in part explain some of the ‘disconnect’ that has evolved between Irish citizens and our political class. Edelman Ireland’s annual ‘Trust Barometer’ shows that only one in five Irish citizens express any faith or confidence in our politicians.

However, in fairness to our elders, they have taken steps to address this growing gap in public trust. Gender quotas have been introduced to encourage more women to participate in national politics. As many older politicians step aside, a newer, younger generation are following in their wake. This must surely give cause for optimism.

Social Housing Strategy launch - Dublin Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

That Sunday Independent interview 

Take Alan Kelly TD for example. As deputy leader of the Labour Party, he is just forty years old. A mere boy in the context of Ireland’s political age-profile. As Minister for the Environment, he gave a very revealing interview to the Sunday Independent last weekend.

In particular, he addressed his motivation for entering public service. This young, thrusting minister is all about ‘ruthless ambition’ it would seem.

His choice of role model is interesting. He tells us he is inspired by the corrupt and criminal Frank Underwood in the Netflix political drama ‘House of Cards’.

Like his anti-hero, Minister Kelly tells us that he is motivated by a desire for power, stating:

It’s obviously a drug. It’s attractive. It’s something you thrive on. It suits some people. It doesn’t suit others. I think it suits me.

By helpful coincidence, RTE Radio’s Today with Sean O’Rourke featured an interesting guest on Wednesday. Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, Ian Robertson appeared on the show to explain the terms ‘hubris’ and ‘narcissism’ – especially among politicians.

Professor Robertson defined the classic narcissistic personality as someone ‘who has very high self esteem’. Someone ‘whose view of themselves is hugely inflated’.

New Irish Labour Party leader Source: Niall Carson

Minister Kelly informed us in his interview last Sunday that he was ‘ambitious’. ‘Extremely ambitious. Probably one of the most ambitious people you are ever going to interview’. So. No lack of self esteem there it would seem.

Professor Robertson warned that narcissistic personalities – particularly in a group culture – could lead to hubris. According to Professor Robertson, hubris is a psychological condition which can become prevalent among groups of egotistical males. The symptoms include ‘over-reach, usually associated with great power where your judgment is actually impaired by your over estimation of your own abilities’.

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Traits among politicians

Other traits of hubris and narcissism among politicians according to Professor Robertson include, ‘over confidence’ and ‘diminished self awareness’ and crucially, ‘seeing their own interests and those of the country as the same thing’. Professor Robertson drily observed that there was a lot of hubris among Ireland’s political ‘elite’ at the time of the financial crash.

According to Minister Kelly, in addition to being an ‘early achiever’, ‘ruthless’ and ‘extremely ambitious’, his priorities as an Irish public servant are as follows.

‘I am loyal firstly to my family. I am loyal then to my parish; then my own area; my county; my country. That’s the way I’m mentally built’.

I do not know what Professor Robertson would have made of Minister Kelly’s remarks.

I’m not a psychologist, so I do not know if his utterances match the diagnostic criteria for narcissism or hubris. If however, his stated aspirations are representative of the culture of Leinster House, it speaks of a political class that sees politics as a game. Such remarks, taken at face value, could be seen to represent a polity that prizes the pursuit of power, cronyism and self-advancement over public service and leadership.

I do not believe that Alan Kelly is either ill-motivated. I think he just gave a poor and ill advised interview. However, he is politically responsible for his utterances. Whatever he actually meant, Minister Kelly’s remarks will be of little comfort to the thousand or so homeless Irish children who spent Christmas in hotel rooms and in other inappropriate settings.

The next Dáil needs more women. It needs younger TDs who will prioritise the national interest over tribal loyalties and the tired, dysfunctional party politics that have brought us the intellectual and ethical failures of the Celtic Tiger, the financial crash, austerity and a looming set of social crises including healthcare, housing and care of the elderly and disabled.

Above all, the bubble that is Leinster House needs a major culture change. We need a republic where hubris and narcissism are replaced by real leadership, public service and social justice. Out with the old and in with the new.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. He is also an Independent candidate for Senate-TCD Panel. You can follow him on Twitter here.  

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Tom Clonan

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