Friday 30 September 2016

True colours shine through when politics can touch real lives

Published 06/02/2016 | 02:30

President Michael D. Higgins with former Presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese outside Áras An Uachtaráin on the 75th anniversary of the Presidency in Ireland in 2013
President Michael D. Higgins with former Presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese outside Áras An Uachtaráin on the 75th anniversary of the Presidency in Ireland in 2013

When, as expected, a breathless Taoiseach announced to the Dáil that he was off to the Park on Wednesday morning, he still caught people off guard. Away he sped without a look back, leaving deputies with stuff unsaid and legislation unfinished. The 31st Dáil had run its course.

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The only mercy for the Deputies scattering back to their constituencies is that it will be a short, snappy campaign - the shortest ever. Most have been electioneering for months. But it only gets real for both voter and candidate when the Dáil is dissolved and the posters go up.

Over the next three weeks, they will get a clearer insight into what people really think by knocking on doors or standing at train stations or church gates. The time will fly. Kilos will be shed from long hours of walking, skipped meals and adrenalin. I called it the 10lb election diet. Operation Transformation before its time.

With military precision, canvassers will swoop down on housing estates, armed with electoral registers and leaflets. Daytime canvassing can be unproductive, with many houses empty during working hours. The best time is after dinner from 7 to 9pm. In my day, we always stopped at nine in time for the TV news, when most people have settled down and do not wish to be disturbed. With working families, it is difficult to get it right. I recall knocking on the doors of jaded young couples with toddlers and babies hanging out of them, just home after a long day at work and at the crèche. They had so little time as a family, I always apologised for disturbing them and never overstayed. People have lives to live. In fact, most have just a peripheral interest in politics and are content just to shake hands and see you on your way.

Of course, there are always the angry people with a grievance, who have been waiting for the TD to call, so as to berate, challenge and generally savage. The best practice is to acknowledge the rant politely and move on. Time is precious and there are many doors ahead.

Cold calling like this on a house-to-house basis is always instructive. One of my canvassers always claimed the PDs had a hope of a vote if the garden was well tended. As the door opens, one has a glimpse into a private home. It is a revelation how many houses include children and adults with special needs or disabilities who are being cared for at home. These homes are always politicised and have time to talk, such is their reliance upon State services and support. They all will have engaged with their TDs on behalf of their loved ones. Sometimes one senses family tensions and even violence in a home, just by standing on the door step for a few minutes. All human life is there.

I recall canvassing for Mary Robinson's presidential election in Dublin as a volunteer. Typically, a man would open the front door, simultaneously declaring his FF or FG credentials and giving us short shrift. But often, the woman of the house would give me a silent thumbs up from the kitchen/dining room door. We knew that mná na hEireann were cooking up a storm and that our candidate could become the first woman President of Ireland. Mary Robinson's victory was a game-changer for many women, including myself. It unfolded opportunities and possibilities. The status quo could be changed after all. They were heady times. She was followed by another woman, Mary McAleese, who stamped her own style and sensibility on the role.

Both women were competent high achievers as lawyers and thought leaders. Together they changed what the Presidency had been - a retirement home in the Park - to a living working public office. Neither put a foot wrong despite pushing out the boundaries of the Presidency to the scope it currently enjoys.

President Michael D Higgins made a timely intervention on the eve of the calling of the General Election this week. He used the constitutional space, created by his predecessors, to fire a shot across the bows of all the parties. At the launch of the report of The President of Ireland's Ethics Initiative, at Áras an Uachtaráin, he warned all parties against election promises on tax cuts for short-term gain.

"Thinking ethically means thinking about long-term consequences… There is work to be done. Ireland is not an egalitarian society yet," President Higgins said.

He also pointedly took a swipe at the European Central Bank for its treatment of heavily-indebted countries like Greece and Ireland. You can take the man away from politics but not politics away from the man. Michael D Higgins has always been an outspoken public intellectual. It is this quality which makes him so suitable for the office of President. He is a thoughtful and kind human being with enormous empathy with people living in disadvantage. I have worked with him on the Foreign Affairs Committee and travelled with him to war-torn places and can vouch for his genuine commitment to global development and human rights.

This week too, he correctly identified the big ethical question facing Europe now as the refugee crisis. "It is capable of testing the most fundamental values that are invoked at the founding of the European Union and its expansion… barriers going up all over Europe is a contradiction of everything the Union was founded to do," he said.

Irish politics is falling short when it comes to speaking up on this crisis. As the misery of millions of Syrian refugees goes on, and the bodies wash up on beaches, Irish politicians appear fearful to lead on this humanitarian issue, and have become silent members of a divided group of EU countries. To be fair, Ireland is the 10th largest donor to the UN fund to house and feed Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. These countries are so burdened that their societies are close to boiling point. A major donor conference in London sought to share this financial burden at least this week and peace talks are underway.

But our voice on managing the migrant crisis in Europe is somehow half-hearted and compromised. Many are puzzled at the delay in mobilising the reception of programme refugees to Ireland, as promised last year by our Government. If there are bureaucratic delays at EU level, Ireland should independently organise the transfer of refugees via the International Organisation for Migration and relevant UN agencies. The numbers are modest and entirely manageable and there is significant public good will here. But I doubt if any party will be highlighting this as a priority. There are no votes in refugees. That is why it's important to have a President with a moral compass.

Irish Independent

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