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Sunday 30 April 2017

There were faults on both sides in this political saga

George Lee's decision to quit politics after only nine months is an indictment of the Dail, writes Lucinda Creighton

THE natural human condition dictates that we all try to protect ourselves and preserve our own positions. Reflecting on the bizarre political events of the week, I think I can only conclude that politicians of all hues were driven by the most primal defensive instincts when they rallied around each other in Leinster House to condemn George Lee's decision to resign his seat in the Dail.

Some members went too far in their criticisms and failed to see the opportunity that this saga presents to reflect on the entire body politic -- and more specifically on the serious shortcomings of our archaic parliamentary system.

I was disappointed at the decision George Lee made last Monday and I am disappointed with George for making it.

I do not believe that he is blameless in this matter. He is an adult who is surely capable of taking proactive initiatives and shouting loudly so his voice is heard.

He could have battled to make his mark, but instead he retreated to the safe house of RTE. However, he was failed by the political system and the club that exists in Leinster House. We were all remiss in failing to identify a problem.

George Lee was correct in saying that Leinster House can be a lonely place. There is an intensely competitive atmosphere, which is cultivated by a knowledge that every single member is jockeying for advancement and a position of some sort. That environment does not foster a strong sense of camaraderie.

Every TD is a sole trader, intensely busy, constantly chasing their tail and rarely taking time to contemplate their own mental health, let alone that of another TD. It can be a dog-eat-dog environment -- and so in the maelstrom of political upheaval in the past eight months we entirely forgot to ensure that George Lee was settling in, finding his feet and being integrated and welcomed into the Fine Gael party.

I can only draw on my own experience after my election to the Dail in 2007. While I was deeply honoured and somewhat overwhelmed to have been elected, I found the process of settling into the cut and thrust of a TD's life very difficult. One experienced colleague, Roscommon TD Denis Naughton, told me on the day of the first Dail sitting that it would take me a year to settle in. I laughed at the prospect, but it turned out to be accurate. The parliamentary system in Ireland is not conducive to TDs making a real contribution to political change. I could detail many examples of the irrelevance of the procedures in Leinster House. The essential point is that the Dail is utterly outmoded, and urgently needs to be changed. It is a frustrating environment for any TD who is interested in advancing ideas and initiatives.

The internal policy development structures in the larger parties is also in dire need of a serious shake-up. The general practice is that individual spokesmen develop policy in their own field of responsibility, with support from the professional research staff available to them. When the policy is at an advanced stage of development, it may then be presented at a parliamentary party meeting for a short discussion.

This can be extremely frustrating for backbenchers who may wish to play a role in policy development.

Often their talents or individual insights and suggestions are simply not used. There is little or no forum to air them.

So it is possible to see why George Lee, who hoped he could change the country and its economic fortunes in a short period of time, became frustrated and disillusioned. His genuine desire to affect change was thwarted by a system which is stale and often ineffectual.

I share his frustration every day of the week. While I think George Lee has thrown away a golden opportunity to shape economic policy and speak up for the people who voted for him in such unprecedented numbers last year, the wrong was certainly not exclusively on his side. To pull down the shutters and defend the political system against the criticism levelled by Lee would be myopic. The man has a point. Political change in Ireland is needed. Perhaps George Lee's departure from politics could be the catalyst we needed.

Lucinda Creighton is a Fine Gael TD for Dublin South-East and is spokeswoman on European Affairs

Sunday Independent

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