Election jitters: Put up or shut up
Pundits and intellectuals have all the answers these days, says Will Hanafin, so will they put their mugs where their mouths are and run for election? Em, no, apparently
Opinions on how to solve the country's troubles are like financial black holes: everyone's got one these days. Bertie Ahern, Noel Dempsey and Dermot Ahern are all heading for the big payout in the sky rather than opting to face the electorate's wrath. We know who is deserting the sinking ship, but who is going to take their place?
Our big problem is that never in the field of political punditry have so many offered solutions, but so few are willing to run for election in 2011. Our recession-era celebrities, the recessionistas, have no trouble putting forward manifestos and economic plans, but they really have a problem putting themselves forward for election.
Recessionistas are bed-blocking Pat Kenny's Frontline studio, causing tailbacks on talk radio by appearing more regularly than AA Roadwatch and tweeting like a Green Party rep with restless-finger syndrome. That's even before you count their best-selling banjaxed-lit books and sold-out public appearances.
But, as I survey the columns, tweets, TV and radio pronouncements of these politicians on the ditch, the Sultans of Ping line from their song Where's me Jumper is the only way of summing it up. "My brother, knows Karl Marx./He met him eating mushrooms in the People's Park,/he said 'What do you think about my manifesto?'/'I like a manifesto, put it to the test-o.'"
Putting it to the test-o has never been so easy because it's a golden age for armchair commentators. Fianna Failers are deserting politics in their droves, so a tilt at the Dail should be like scoring a goal in an empty net, but no one wants to give it a go. The make-up of the next Dail looks set to be even more staid than this one.
A recent academic study of the candidates that Fine Gael and Labour have selected to run in the upcoming general election guesstimated that the average age of a TD in the new Dail will be 54, and only 20 per cent of candidates will be women.
With all the talk of change, it's worth remembering that the new government will more than likely be led by Enda Kenny, who has been in the Dail for 35 years, and ably assisted by Eamon Gilmore, who has been a TD since 1989. They will also have a massive majority, with legions of bored TDs there merely to provide cannon fodder, so we'll be back to the stultifying consensus politics of the Bertie era.
So who is shouting "Stop!" or, more importantly, "Run!"? The short answer is: nobody. I check the latest Dail register of political parties to see what great new movements await us at the hustings in March. It's underwhelming, to say the least.
There are some newcomers, but that's only good news if you're a Dublin pensioner or live in Letterkenny or South Kerry. The Seniors Solidarity Party have registered to contest local elections in Dublin. There's also SKIA, the South Kerry Independent Alliance. Don't forget the Letterkenny Residents Party, which has the aim of running in the local Letterkenny electoral area.
Where are these brave new movements headed by David McWilliams, Vincent Browne or Fintan O'Toole, with an election just weeks away? They don't exist. Despite the dead certainty of more of the same politics after the next election, the moral high ground is still too comfortable for our recessionistas to vacate.
Someone who has, like the Grand Old Duke of York, been marching us up and down the hill of political reform for years is Fintan O'Toole. Before the recession hit, you get the feeling that Fintan was essentially just marking time with his Tuesday Irish Times column. Before the crisis, he passed the time writing predictable moral-outrage columns about bonkers topics such as the inequity of phasing out chequebooks and the evils of the forestry business in Ireland. But the recession has proved to be a middle-aged monkey-gland treatment for Fintan, and his Tuesday column has now rediscovered its mojo.
Back in November 2007 he was prattling on about some cutback or other and made this preachy prediction in his column: "Do we ape our betters and do nothing until we or our loved ones are unfortunate enough to get sick or old or disabled? Or do we make our voices heard in the only place that's left to us -- on the streets, in our tens of thousands?"
With those prophetic words, it's clear that Fintan has been practising in front of the mirror for ages to speak to a disaffected crowd. So, when he finally got his chance late last year and spoke in front of the GPO at the November union rally, he was in his element. "They don't mind, and we don't matter. Our rulers have no shame, and they believe we have no voice," he was quoted as saying.
Since then he may have totally lost the run
of himself but, of course, he won't run for the Dail himself. It seems to be beneath him -- as is parliamentary democracy if his recent pronouncements are to be believed. He has even set up a website called fintanotoole.ie where he has unveiled a 10-point non-testo manifesto. If you sign up to his manifesto, you're committing yourself not to vote for anyone who won't implement the points. There are some good ideas, such as reducing the Dail to 100 members and bringing in a list system to elect representatives. But other manifesto pledges are just pie-in-the-sky proposals that only Fintan's brain would consider important. These include the restoration of the original 1997 Freedom of Information Act and gender quotas.
Worryingly, Fintan's big idea is to ditch the Government altogether and replace it with a troika of unelected worthies. "First, the Government must go at once and be replaced, in the short term, by a technical administration (led by non-political people of integrity and competence) that will enter negotiations on the basis of the Irish public interest, not of continuing Fianna Fail's disastrous agenda," says Fintan.
On The Frontline -- where else? -- he pronounced that his threesome should be Mary Robinson, former National Treasury Management Agency boss Michael Somers and successful businessman Niall Fitzgerald, who has lived abroad for decades. It was probably news to them as well.
It's always toe-curlingly embarrassing when Fintan comes up with solutions. He's grand giving out about Fianna Fail, builders, banks and the disastrous state of education funding, but solutions aren't his strong suit.
We're in the deepest merde imaginable, and he wants a dictatorship comprising a retired civil servant, a human-rights lawyer and the bloke who used to run Unilever. They might be good at setting up a financially sound Fairtrade washing-powder factory, but running a country might be a stretch.
The problem is that Fintan O'Toole's ideas have always been woollier than the knitwear section of a craft shop. This was his idea back in November 2008 for getting us out of the recession: "We need the cost of building land to be controlled. We need Eircom to be taken back into public ownership (using the Pension Reserve Fund) so that vital communications infrastructure can be provided. We need consistent investment in education. We need a serious commitment to developing world-leading green technologies." Raiding the pension reserve fund? Renationalisation of Eircom? Pie-in-
the-sky green technologies? Sounds like John Gormley at his most madcap.
Even international commentators think Fintan O'Toole's one-track, gloom-laden prognosis for the country is over the top. Here's an extract from a review of his latest book Enough is Enough in The Economist. "Mr O'Toole's writing is splendidly sharp, but his conclusion seems too gloomy. Despite the excesses of Ireland's time as a Celtic Tiger, the country has changed for the better. Real businesses, from pharmaceuticals to computing, continue to flourish. Foreign investment is still being lured in by low corporate-tax rates. The country churns out many good graduates.
Public services are patchy but improving, as is infrastructure. Corruption is a problem, but it is surely not as bad as in many other European countries. And, as elsewhere, the church's baleful influence is now hugely diminished."
Fintan O'Toole's detachment from reality is clear when engaging in real-life problems such as illegal drug use. In July 2008 he wondered what all the fuss was about when it came to cocaine and other drugs. "There has been a demand for illegal and unapproved mind-altering substances for at least the last 350 years in Ireland. That demand has been channelled into different substances -- poteen, ether, hash, LSD, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy -- but there is no great evidence that it is actually higher now, as a proportion of the population, than it was a century ago."
This was immediately slapped down by Cork A&E consultant Dr Chris Luke who works at the coalface with drug abusers, and replied with this article in August 2008. "And as for Fintan O'Toole's recent assertion, in the Irish Times, that 'There is no great evidence that the demand is actually higher now . . . than it was a century ago,' I would point out that there is no funding for research into the healthcare frontline workload. So he will have to take my word that, while the appetite for them may not vary much over time, the intoxicants du jour in Ireland are much more worrisome than they were, say, in the post-war period, adding incalculably as they do . . . to the existing tobacco and alcohol burdens." Two years later, Dr Luke's words ring a lot truer than O'Toole's after high-profile cocaine-related deaths such as Gerry Ryan's.
Of course, Fintan O'Toole's reluctance to run in a general election could also be down to nervousness. Back in November he said: "A civic movement has to create a critical mass around the idea of radical political reform . . . First, the people of Donegal South West have to refuse to vote for Fianna Fail at all." Fianna Fail ended up with more than 20 per cent of the vote.
Fintan also demanded 100,000 signatures to make his 10-point petition effective, but it's now stalled at 12,500, according to his website. Still, if those 12,500 were in a constituency, he would romp home on the first count, but he has ruled out running.
In relationship terms, Fintan is saying to the political system, "It's not me, it's you." But prominent intellectuals in other countries have got over themselves and engaged in real politics. Canadian Michael Ignatieff was a well-known columnist and broadcaster in the UK from the Eighties until the late Nineties. He's now the leader of the opposition Liberal Party in Canada.
Our own Garret FitzGerald worked as an economist for Aer Lingus for years, as well as writing articles on economics for newspapers. He eventually joined Fine Gael after a spell as a lecturer in Trinity College, becoming a TD in 1969 and party leader by 1977.
Fintan O'Toole is by no means the only recessionista who won't put up or shut up. David McWilliams also recently announced that he won't be running in the general election either. When asked by reporters about rumours that he would stand, McWilliams said: "I would make a brutal politician because I couldn't fix drains or get involved in the kind of stuff that politicians do. My sense is that there is a huge appetite for change. Outside Leinster House people want real change, but standing for the Dail is not really for me."
There's going to be a real problem at the next election as big beasts such as O'Toole and McWilliams, who dominate debates about economics with their high-profile media platforms have said "Nah, not for me. Sorry!"
The person most responsible for queering the pitch for prospective Dail newbies has to be George Lee. Last year he decamped after just nine months as a TD, despite getting 27,000 votes and promising to "tell my children and grandchildren that I had done something to help in the greatest economic crisis in the history of the State."
Now that the dust has settled, it's clear that George's economic scare at bedtime for his nearest and dearest shouldn't take too long to recount. Luckily for him, children have short attention spans, so they shouldn't ask too many sticky questions.
"So what did you do in the great recession, granddad George?"
"Mmm . . . About nine months, son. Next question."
There was much nose-holding from commentators that, as a TD, George Lee had to campaign in his constituency about local issues such as private clamping. Now David McWilliams is getting cold sweats about the prospect of having to fix leaks. Surely it's not a bad thing that TDs engage with constituency issues as long as they don't lose the big picture, namely that they are national legislators. Anyway, local issues such as water shortages have a habit of quickly becoming national issues.
Concerns about private clampers are now in the past for George Lee as he has returned to his RTE decontamination chamber presenting The Business on Radio 1. George may have some more explaining to do to his children and grandchildren though, because I heard him at Christmas interviewing Cork panto characters called Dame Polly Unsaturate and Flotsam about the business of panto. How the mighty have fallen. Oh yes they have!
They say that politics is the entertainment industry for ugly people, so it has to follow that Twitter is the entertainment industry for economists. David McWilliams has 17,000 followers, twice as many as top political tweeter Dan Boyle. Even Brian Lucey, Trinity College finance professor, has as many followers as Fine Gael's ace Twitter fan Simon Coveney.
Getting elected as a TD shouldn't be a big culture shock for Twitter devotees. After all, winning a seat is like accumulating followers and most TDs only manage to speak about 140 characters in the Dail before they're guillotined.
But even though tweeting economists are popular in the blogosphere, they're still reluctant to offer themselves to the electorate. So far, all of our potential political savours have turned out to be backseat drivers, so I thought that if I appealed to the Twitter recessionistas they could offer some hope.
I first tweeted Brian Lucey, the voluble professor of finance in Trinity College who has clocked up nearly 8,000 tweets and 3,000 followers. He has been a pretty consistent critic of the government's banking policy, so I asked him would he run for election -- test-o the manifesto, and all of that.
It only took Brian Lucey 97 characters to reply and it wasn't great news.
"Running away yes. Been approached, not interested, system of whips and party votes not for me." Thanks Brian!
Next up I tweeted TCD finance lecturer Constantin Gurdgiev, who is another trenchant critic of the Government's economic policy. His PFO takes 128 characters when I ask him would he consider running.
"No, but all my analysis & ideas are public, so any1 can be free to adopt or use them, as well as dispute/challenge them as well."
Gee, thanks, Constantin!
A picture is emerging that many of our intellectuals believe that the messy business of politics, even during a national crisis, should be left to everyone else.
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