Sunday 23 October 2016

Eilis O'Hanlon: The first rule of politics - if the voters need reassurance, then reassure them

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 15/11/2015 | 02:30

Mairia Cahill
Mairia Cahill

Mairia Cahill will make a fine Senator, but the way Labour ran this campaign hasn't left the party covered in glory

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Remember: if there's any chance you might be raped or sexually abused, do make sure first that you are of unimpeachable character, with an unblemished personal history, or everything you have ever said or done will be raked over in an effort to belittle your experience and discredit your story.

It was ever thus. "She was wearing a short skirt… she was drunk... she was asking for it." It's even worse now. Formerly, the hostility was confined to a few hours on the witness stand. Now it takes place, night and day, across social media.

This is what happened to Mairia Cahill, as of Friday a newly elected Labour Party Senator, who not only has had to deal with her private life being dissected daily by anonymous ghouls for some time now on social media. Now, in the course of campaigning for election, Mairia has been asked to address the fact that she was once a member of a dissident republican organisation opposed to peace, something she long ago dealt with publicly.

Well, newsflash. Mairia isn't perfect. She doesn't pretend to be. She's had quarrels that she shouldn't have had. Said things she shouldn't have said. Made some bad calls. Who hasn't? Just because she puts up a tough front doesn't mean she's not also hugely vulnerable. Surely we know enough by now not to expect victims to be saints.

These specific theories about Mairia being some kind of dissident 'Trojan horse' emerged the moment she went public with her story last year. In recent weeks, they were resurrected in the hope that tainting her name would ensure that the Belfast woman either did not win or would be so damaged by the fallout that she would be a dead-duck Senator.

The idea that TDs and Senators from Fine Gael and Labour would not vote for their own candidate was fanciful. The second hope remains a definite danger, however.

Mairia is too smart and tough to be silenced, but she is now in a tricky situation. Winning an election is only the first step. How you win can determine what happens next. The contention that her brief involvement with the so-called Republican Network for Unity represents a threat to the political process may be ludicrous, but that doesn't mean the questions should have gone unanswered for so long.

Mairia and I don't see eye to eye on this issue. That's fine.

We're permitted to disagree. My opinion all along was that not directly addressing these questions only allowed them to fester further, inviting suspicion that she was hiding from scrutiny. Others were offering her different advice and there were certain legal considerations she had to take into account. She is also her own woman and felt strongly that she had already put those concerns to bed. All the same, it seemed to me, and still does, like a wrong call, whoever made it.

This issue was being raised, not only by her political enemies, but by many ordinary people who were uncomfortable with what they were hearing; not because they were hostile to Mairia from the start for ideological reasons, but simply because it was outside their range of experience.

Most ordinary Irish people did not grow up in a political furnace like west Belfast, where groups such as RNU are two a penny, and the reports they were hearing alarmed them.

Personally, it came up on a number of occasions. Perfectly decent people, none of them ill-inclined to her by any means, were ringing up to ask: "Here, what's the story?"

Since this issue first arose last year, my advice to Mairia was always the same, namely that no one gives a hoot about the minutiae of this or that resolution, or what this or that group was up to on a day-to-day basis.

All they want to know is whether Mairia is one of those scary characters they see on the Six One News being arrested at gunpoint.

Those of us who've spent time with her know that she isn't and, having accompanied her to court, we've seen her relationship with the police at first hand.

Someone reading accounts in a newspaper doesn't have the same personal experience by which to make a judgement, obviously. They have only two things to go on - the reports themselves and Mairia's own testimony. One or other of them is going to prevail, and it was in Mairia's hands to ensure that they had the second to balance out the first.

People are also fundamentally fair-minded, so I was equally sure that, having been reassured, they'd gladly move on with their lives and allow Mairia to move on with hers.

Rightly or wrongly, silence is always used against public figures. To some extent, they're damned if they do speak out and damned if they don't. But that's politics. Once a candidate stands for election, there's an automatic sea change in how he or she is regarded, both by voters and the media, and that shift has to be managed, not ignored. If people need constant reassurance as part of that, then give it to them.

That can't be done merely through press releases. People like to see and hear their public representatives speak, in order to assess how they handle heat.

That's where reputations - be it for evasion, casuistry, or plain speaking - are made. Seanad elections are peculiar in that candidates are answerable only to a tiny electorate, but that's no excuse for treating them as private occasions outside the normal democratic process.

Labour's thinking seems to have been that they were not going to ask Mairia to jump through hoops to answer questions which they felt were being raised in an effort to undermine one of Sinn Fein's ablest critics. But even if that was true, did they never consider the counter-possibility that her detractors, far from wanting Mairia to speak out in her own defence, were actually banking on these questions not being answered before the election, so that she would begin her tenure as a Senator under a shadow of innuendo?

She couldn't be stopped from winning; but they might have calculated that Labour, being Labour, would run this election in such a manner as to further undermine the party's own standing. Mairia only had to convince 122 senators and TDs that she was the right woman for the seat.

Labour still have to convince millions of voters that they should be returned to government and their handling of this election shows again why they will struggle to do so.

This wasn't an election to some minor local social club, but to one of the highest institutions of the State, albeit one in desperate need of reform, and Labour grossly disrespected it by allowing the impression to take root that their candidate was being shielded from legitimate democratic scrutiny.

For Mairia, it's been a sharp learning curve. For Labour, the campaign was just another own goal from a party which makes a speciality of them.

Having bagged her as a candidate, they needed to run a more open campaign, not compound their reputation for being so indifferent to public opinion.

Sunday Independent

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