Sunday 23 October 2016

Our councillors will be with us for a while yet

Published 09/12/2015 | 02:30

Doing ‘the turn’ for a vote is miles away from seeking bribes for secretly touting influence
Doing ‘the turn’ for a vote is miles away from seeking bribes for secretly touting influence

Time was when the sociologists, anthropologists, and many's the other "ologist" could not get enough of studying the quaint Irish way of politics.

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The main focus was in the 1970s and 1980s and the buzz words were "clientelism" and "brokerage." The two phenomena are cousins - and we need not bother with the fine distinctions. The main "ologists'" theme was that Ireland - in common with other poor, rural societies, with a colonial past - relied unduly on politicians to mediate encounters with the State system.

The general view was that our councillors, TDs and senators could not necessarily get us much beyond our entitlements. But the legend was that politicians could speed delivery and render the effort of getting things less painful.

In return, we voted for the politician, for the longer-term. That model has been challenged and modified.

We can go one better and tell you that our politicians have long ago given up expecting a vote for life in exchange for a favour or favours rendered.

Yes, they still do the clinic business, fire off letters or emails, pass on replies, and so on. But they do it to project themselves as hard-working and committed professional politicians upholding the local good.

Up until the summer of 2003, our Oireachtas members retained a foothold in the local council to epitomise the maxim that all Irish politics, as elsewhere, are local. With the demise of the dual mandate the councillor is often a close relative of the local TD. They each uphold the family firm.

Like it or loath it, this is all a huge feature of our political world. Ask any politician how he or she got on when they focused mainly on policy. But hurry up because it's odds on they will soon be known as an ex-politician.

When the "ologists" first landed in Ireland, there was an assumption that we would evolve. We'd become all prosperous and modern and do our own business with the State system.

If that is happening, then the change is ever so gradual and subtle. The reality is that, as a small and largely homogeneous society, we approach many of life's tasks by seeking personal mediation and recommendation.

Irish politics, like so much else in Irish life, is personalised.

A better standard of living, and/or more gizmos, have not consigned our local politicians to history just yet.

Still, at times when there is controversy about ethics in public life, the soul-searching begins and we ask about links between our personalised politics and deviation into unethical and downright wrong behaviour. Well, I can definitively tell you that doing "the turn" is miles away from seeking bribes for secretly touting influence.

The biggest and most urgent thing we require here is greater transparency. And that is proving a much longer journey than it should.


Irish Independent

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