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Dublin: 2 °C Wednesday 26 February, 2020

If Irish politicians are incompetent, can we really plead ignorance?

In a country where few TDs would dare miss a funeral, do we really have a closer connection with our representatives… or do we just make them work harder at fooling us?

Donal O'Keeffe

THERE’S A SCENE in the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” where the corrupt governor, Pappy O’Daniel (Charles Durning) reacts angrily to his son’s suggestion that he “press the flesh” of the potential electorate. Bustling his way into a radio studio, O’Daniel snaps “We ain’t one-at-a-timin’ here. We’re MASS-communicating!”

I thought of that last week when Maureen Dowd reminisced in the New York Times about her brother’s time as a Senate page. He delivered mail to the then-Senators Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon, who had offices opposite each other. Kennedy never looked up or acknowledged him, whereas Nixon always greeted him, by name, with a huge smile and asked after his family. Personally, I thought this said a lot more for Nixon than it did for Kennedy but Dowd’s conclusion was that Kennedy, a man of effortless charisma, felt he didn’t need to waste his time one-at-a-timin’.

Dowd was speaking about the very obvious differences between the woman who would be the second President Clinton and her husband, the original of the species. She suggested that Hillary’s lack of Bill’s – and Obama’s – superstar magnetism explains her reported plan to get to the White House one vote at a time.

Do we really have a closer connection with our representatives?

We don’t really do superstar politician here and that’s probably no bad thing. But how much of our own impressions of politicians are formed by personal interaction and how much by the pre-packaged, PR-schooled TV image? In a country where few TDs would dare miss a funeral and the Taoiseach’s mobile number is a matter of public record, do we really have a closer connection with our representatives or do we just make them work harder at fooling us?

I asked a Government minister and, not for attribution, they told me they believe that no amount of PR conditioning will change your innate personality or grant you what they thought was the only real political currency – likeability.

It’s a very Irish thing – but hardly exclusively Irish – that we don’t like our representatives to get airs about themselves. Every minister and junior minister lies awake at night dreading that their constituency party colleagues, eyeing their seat, are whispering around the parish pump that yer man or yer woman is spending too much time swanning around Dublin but look, no bother, I’ll sort that planning permission for you.

I was at the launch of a County Council campaign last year and in the candidate’s declaration speech, I estimated (unscientifically) that he mentioned his home village perhaps 35 times, himself 30 times, the GAA about the same number, his political party (Fine Gael) twice and the Taoiseach once. The crowd ate it up.

As The Jam sang, 35 years ago, “The public gets what the public wants”.

They’re telling us what we want to hear – and we know it

I met a local Fianna Fail county councillor recently and – because he was talking to me, a crackpot liberal, he almost wept for his patriotic love of equality and his intention to vote Yes for marriage equality.

A fortnight later, in the village pub at the heart of his vote, he sounded the clarion call that enough is enough and it’s time for rural Ireland to stand up for “traditional family values”.

Here’s the thing: I knew he was telling me what I wanted to hear. The lads in the pub knew he was telling them what they wanted to hear. He knows I almost certainly wouldn’t vote for him in a hairy fit but he obviously figures there’s no point in actually making an enemy of me, on the off-chance I might give him a Number 2 or 3.

He knows the lads in the pub think he’s a clown but, as long as he doesn’t frighten the horses by absent-mindedly humming “Y.M.C.A.” as he waits for his pint to settle, they’ll probably vote for him out of habit.

We’re the people who hire them

When things go wrong, we like to think that it’s all the politicians’ fault, but who elects them? We can all scream about betrayal and lies, but who puts them in their jobs? We do. We’re the people who hire them.

We want them to represent us and to be better than us – but we never want them to forget where they came from, either.

They tend not to mass-communicate, Irish politicians, because they – and we – are more comfortable at one-at-a-timin’, but if politicians are corrupt or incompetent, can we really claim to be innocent of their failings?

As another fictional Irish-American politician, President Josiah Edward Bartlet, said, “Are you failing us, or are we failing you? It’s a little of both.”

What is it that really shatters faith?

One Fianna Fail apparatchik tells me that his granny – a Northside Dub and a diehard FF supporter – worshipped the ground upon which both Charlie Haughey and Bertie Ahern walked.

When Haughey met his downfall and was revealed to be the kept man of big business interests, her ardour was undimmed. Despite the Moriarty Tribunal eventually finding that Haughey had received over IR £8 million in what it called “unethical” payments and despite its accusing Haughey of “devaluing democracy”, she wouldn’t hear a word against him. Wasn’t Charlie a great leader and what harm if he got a few bob to keep him in the manner to which he was accustomed?

What was interesting was how she greeted Bertie Ahern’s subsequent fall from grace. She was heartbroken and furious. Her faith was shattered. It’s important to remember that, while the Mahon Tribunal did find that Ahern had received monies from developers, it did not judge him to be corrupt. That should have been her “out”. Not a bit of it.

Haughey had always played the squire, with the imperious tones and the outrageous taste in fine living. That was part of the package. Logically, the money had to be coming from somewhere and the party faithful didn’t really care where.

Bertie, on the other hand, had always sold himself as an ordinary man, living in a modest semi-d, drinking Bass in Fagans, a badly-spoken, ill-dressed daycent Dub whose only obvious indulgence was the odd trip to Old Trafford. The sterling and the pots of money and the no bank account and the hanging his poor secretary out to dry finished Bertie with my friend’s granny.

The betrayal she could never forgive, she said, was that “He pretended he was one of us”.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe.

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