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Column: Are political families healthy for democracy?

Name recognition surely benefits politically candidacy both here and abroad, but it shouldn’t just be the Kennys, McEntees or the Clintons that are getting involved in the politics of shaping nations – we all should be, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THIS WEEK, THE newly elected TD from Meath East, Helen McEntee, gave her maiden speech in Dáil Éireann. The 26-year-old was elected in a March by-election that resulted from the tragic death of her father, Shane McEntee. While many in Ireland then offered their sincere congratulations on what must have been a bittersweet victory to Deputy McEntee, who holds a degree in politics and worked with her late father for two years, the reaction of others wasn’t as positive.

The gist of this reaction was that she was elected almost solely because of her family name and the Meath East electorate’s sympathy for the McEntees. Additionally, a deeply offensive question was posed by one Sinn Féin councillor: “Isn’t it amazing that the McEntee family can put their grief aside to keep their snouts in the trough?” Although he was rightly condemned in virtually every quarter, there is no doubt that others share this point of view.

Not the first Irish politician whose electoral success owes something to surname or tragedy

Helen McEntee’s candidacy surely benefitted from widespread name recognition and sympathy under difficult circumstances. She is far from the first Irish politician whose electoral success owes something to surname and/or tragedy, however. The Lenihans and Cowens are leading examples of two such political families. And indeed, the present Taoiseach was first elected to the Dáil at age 24 after the untimely passing of his father, Henry Kenny TD, in 1975.

The political family is not unique to this country. In the US, political families are equally prominent. The Irish American Kennedys are the most well-known political family of the 20th century. President John F Kennedy was not the first in his family to enter American political life.  His maternal grandfather, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, was Mayor of Boston and a major player in Massachusetts Democratic politics. And of course, the late US Senator Edward Kennedy and the late Attorney General and US Senator Robert Kennedy were elected to office in the years immediately following their brother’s election and assassination. The Kennedy tradition is carried on today by recently elected US Congressman Joseph Kennedy III.

Bush and Clinton legacies live on

Moreover, the Bush and Clinton families have dominated American politics for the past quarter century. Even now, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is still said to have White House ambitions and his son, George P Bush, is a candidate for statewide office in Texas next year. Hillary Clinton is likely to seek the presidency again in 2016 and, rather intriguingly, Chelsea Clinton said last month that she is open to running for political office in the future. There are also local and regional political families throughout the US.

Clearly then, political families are a fact of life on both sides of the Atlantic. This reality gives rise to a vitally important question: are they healthy for democracy? This is a complex, multi-layered question that is not amenable to easy answer but, based on personal experience, I can shed some light on why I believe it is that those from political families tend to become involved themselves–  and on why I believe it would be healthy for democracy in Ireland and in the US to have more political families.

Politics is in our blood

I come from a Boston Irish political family. My great uncles were Boston city councillors and held other statewide offices in Massachusetts; my uncle was a Massachusetts state legislator and US Congressman; my father worked on a number of political campaigns and declined several requests to stand for office himself. As such, the discussions at our family gatherings are invariably about politics and civic life.

To this day, the telephone conversations I have with my father back in Boston revolve around political speculation or post-election analysis of vote totals – ward by ward and precinct by precinct.  It may seem strange, yet it feels absolutely normal. It is in our blood. And now, Irish politics keeps me doubly busy.

We are probably over the top. By contrast, however, I’ve had nowhere near the same amount of meaningful discussions with other families here or in Boston about politics and civic life. Most that I have had are typically characterised by virulently anti-politician sentiment, an understandable by-product of always looking at the process from the “outside-in.”

There’s no reason why we all can’t help shape the future of this country

It’s unfortunate that so many people choose not to get involved. The importance of political and civic engagement is one of the things I stress over and over again to my law students. There is no reason why they shouldn’t be involved to the fullest extent in helping to shape the future of this country.

Accordingly, I’m delighted to see the energy and enthusiasm – on the campus of NUI Galway and at other third level institutions in Ireland – of the youth wings of all the political parties and of the numerous student groups working strategically to create a better country in a variety of ways within and without the political system. I am especially inspired by those students who indicate that their families are relatively apolitical and/or disengaged. I hope this activist impulse stays with them and they create new political families. In so doing, they needn’t necessarily seek elective office themselves.

I think a multiplying of the number of political families would be a most welcome development. Having more families for whom politics and civic life are a central part of their own, and not just somebody else’s, lives would be very healthy for democracy everywhere. For one thing, I believe more people would recognise that snide comments about active citizens from political families are actually quite unfair.

Larry Donnelly is a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist for IrishCentral.com. To read more from Larry for TheJournal.ie click here.

Read: Helen McEntee describes first day in Dáil as “emotional”>

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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