Despite our Euro vote, we have little say in 'big ticket' issues
Like a good citizen, I watched one of the television debates on the European parliament elections. It lasted for two hours, not counting ad breaks.
Were those hours wasted? In one sense, no. A blockbuster like that gives you a rare chance to look in some depth at the candidates and make up your mind whether you would like to elect any of them to a seat in the parliament or anywhere else.
And you will always take a liking to someone who sticks to the point, talks sense and never raises his or her voice. There are many, many reasons why we should all go out and vote next Friday, and this is one of them.
But what will happen to the sensible, quiet-spoken person if he or she is elected?
That question applies in other elections too. A bright young person enters the Dail and finds that his or her role amounts to nothing better than lobby fodder. A county council member soon discovers that no Irish government will allow the council to exercise the powers taken for granted in other countries.
The deputy or councillor, however, has the chance to rise. The councillor gains a possible stepping stone to the Dail The deputy can hope for promotion to the government. But the European parliament is not much more than a dead end.
In the first place, 11 Irish representatives will be almost invisible in a parliament with more than 700 members. And even if the 700-plus acted in unison – a manifest impossibility – they would enjoy less power than that which resides in the hands of one man: Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank chief.
Members of the parliament can, and do, perform excellent work on such issues as consumer rights, the environment and administrative reform. it is the commissioners who do the "big ticket" stuff.
Here, Ireland has a mixed record. Our governments have nominated some outstanding commissioners, the most notable being Peter Sutherland. As competition commissioner, he brought in admirable measures from which the citizens of the European Union still benefit in their daily lives, whether or not they know his name.
But Irish governments have also nominated commissioners simply because, for one reason or another, they wanted to get the person concerned out of the way.
Now here is something worth considering when you cast your vote. Our governments have let us down, again and again, when it comes to decisions which affect our prestige and influence. This matters more than property tax or water charges. We can punish them at the polls – including next week's polls.
Sadly, however, we can do little or nothing about the two biggest issues of all: the economy, and war and peace. On the first, Mario Draghi will make our decisions for us.
On the second, the blunders of the EU have contributed heavily to the Ukraine crisis.
Ireland has no role in Ukraine, but we do have a profound interest in, and a duty to make ourselves heard on, the rise of extreme right-wing parties all across Europe.
Does UKIP in Britain count as one of these? Its leader, Nigel Farage, denies it. He has distanced himself from the French National Front. But he wants Britain out of the European Union, and if his party inflicts a serious blow on the Conservatives in next week's elections the pressure on David Cameron to support withdrawal could become unbearable.
For Ireland, British withdrawal would be calamitous, something to be avoided at almost any cost.
Is there perhaps, in some obscure back room in Merrion Street, a group of brilliant officials setting their subtle minds to the question whether we can find ways of persuading Britain to stay in the EU? Or to the more daunting question, what measures can we introduce to limit the damage if the worst comes to the worst?
I very much doubt it. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition is preoccupied with the elections and even more worried about their implications for the all-important general election in 2016 – or earlier.
And right now the Coalition looks shakier than at almost any time since it took office in 2011. Its resort to promises of popular measures is a sign of weakness, not strength.
We would all love tax cuts. We approve of help for first-time house buyers. But can we afford these things? Maybe, but only if we know that we are on the way to a genuine economic recovery. With only a week to go, the voters do not appear to believe that, and I doubt if any number of sensible, quiet-spoken candidates will make them change their minds.