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The Irish For: Why do so many Irish politicians start out as teachers?

Darach Ó Séaghdha asks why we elect so many múinteoirí to the Oireachtas.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

SOME INTERNATIONAL COMMENTATORS who have been watching our recent elections have remarked that Irish politics in general and elections, in particular, are a little bit different to their systems.

Certain differences, like our voting system for starters – proportional representation with a single transferable vote (PR-STV) – draw particular attention from abroad.

The fact too that we have politicians with the same policies who remain bitter political rivals is also something that commentators, sometimes patronisingly, have attributed to our whimsical national temperament.

But there is a big difference which is ignored by international media but is frequently commented on within Ireland.

In the Republic of Ireland, we elect a lot of múinteoirí to the Oireachtas. It has consistently been the largest professional background for TDs and senators (not for our presidents, funnily enough). Why is this?

How it works elsewhere

To put this in context, it’s worth looking at the anomalies in other democracies and asking what the disproportionate representation of certain vocations says about them.

Do Americans elect mostly lawyers to the Senate because they find that profession especially trustworthy, or because their practice of electing district attorneys and judges gives such candidates more electoral experience and visibility?

Does the disproportionately high amount of journalists found in senior roles (Messrs Johnson, Gove and Osbourne in recent times) in the British Conservative party reflect the esteem in which that job is held or that party’s relationship with certain newspapers?

Looking to the UK, the high amount of columnists and banker MPs are concentrated within the Conservative Party; MPs from teaching backgrounds overwhelmingly tend to be in Labour. This is not the case in Ireland where teachers represent across the political spectrum.

The road to power

Our last five Taoisigh – Varadkar, Kenny, Cowen, Ahern, Bruton – were very different men, but they all had one thing in common: they were first elected to the Dáil before their 28th birthday.

So while their number includes two lawyers, an accountant, a teacher and a doctor, they were only recently qualified at the time they became parliamentarians. This speaks to the real road to power here: to get involved with a party at the earliest opportunity at your college and constituency.

Rather than reflecting the political muscle of the educational sector, most TDs from teacher backgrounds are veterans of student union politics who have resolved to become elected representatives at the early opportunity.

Some are lucky enough to get a shot immediately, others may have to wait well over a decade. So how do they earn a crust while they’re waiting for opportunity to knock?

Teaching is more attractive for a graduate with political ambitions than the gardaí or the civil service, where party membership and campaigning are prohibited.

And while professions like healthcare, accountancy, engineering and law will often give a graduate opportunities overseas where they might lose touch with their local cumann and miss out on meetings critical for candidate selection, this has not historically been the case with teaching (although lucrative TEFL opportunities in the Middle East in recent years might change this).

If a teacher runs for a particular party and loses, they can return to their day job without a loss of professional reputation – their understanding of The Grapes of Wrath, Ox Bow Lakes or calculating the surface area of a cylinder isn’t challenged.

The public face of teaching allows a future candidate to meet lots of potential voters in their constituency. In this sense, teaching is in the middle of the Venn diagram of what voters, parties and candidates in Ireland expect from each other.

Teachers and Irish

Has the concentration of teachers in politics had an impact on decisions about Gaeilge?

The idea that it has had an impact, be it positive or negative, hinges on the perception of Irish as two things: as a school subject and as a political hot potato.

Any effective promotion of the language needs to break that perception and reflect the experiences of Irish speakers outside these spheres. 

 

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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