Saturday 22 October 2016

We may not love our politicians - but we can admire them

Niamh Gallagher

Published 10/06/2015 | 02:30

Jeremy Paxman, who tried to define the key requirements for a politician
Jeremy Paxman, who tried to define the key requirements for a politician

What characteristics do we want our politicians to have? Do you praise the postman for delivering letters? Probably not. Nor should you, according to Roy Keane, who was furious when Alex Ferguson praised him for 'covering every blade of grass' in a game. It's not a big deal, was his view - it's just what you do: it's your job.

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The week before last, Deputy Catherine Murphy did her job. She had privileged information that she believed was in the public interest. She read it into the Dáil record so it could be dealt with. I imagine that her view of what she did might be similar to Keane's - it's just what you do, it's the job.

But for me, what she did took courage. Such courage is an important trait in a politician, and a trait we need to see more of.

As we speak, General Election hopefuls nationwide are gearing up for the coming race. Whether for the bear pit of the party selection convention or the lonelier road of an independent, these men and women are busy gathering friends, family and colleagues around them, building their teams, designing their strategy, planning their campaigns.

Every one of these people is to be admired. It takes courage to stand for election, courage and buckets of self-confidence to believe that you can do it: that you can fight, win and - when it's all over - march into the Dáil and deliver on the (usually) many and varied promises made to voters in the heat of election fever.

What kind of person does that? And more to the point, what kind of person should we - the voters - want to do that? We're not really sure, it seems. There is no person specification or job description for a politician. It might be the most important job in the country, yet there is no clear, objective way of assessing who is suitable and who is not. It's left to us as voters, on top of wading through reams of policy and party political literature to decide, is this person up to the job?

Jeremy Paxman, a long-time observer of politicians, made a stab at defining the key requirements in his book 'The Political Animal'. Politicians, he said, must have enormous self-confidence, manic persistence, unlimited reserves of energy, unswerving loyalty, limitless capacity to engage in apparently pointless work and sufficiently clear vision to keep focused on their objective. Alongside that they must be incurable optimists in possession of a patient and devoted spouse.

Not looking for much then.

But the basis for Paxman's description - his experience of British politicians as a journalist - is problematic. It's more about what he has seen, than what we should want to see. To write a useful person specification we need to identify the positive traits, the ones we desperately want our politicians to have, articulate them and then look for them in the women and men who knock on our doors between now and next March asking for our vote. So what are they?

Let's start with courage: the courage to stand up for what you believe, to challenge the crowd, to take risks for what's right. Gerry Adams had the courage to lead the IRA into peace talks; Tony Blair had the courage to talk to them. Their work, and that of many others, led to our peace process.

Tenacity: the determination and doggedness to keep going, even when it's rough. Things do not happen quickly in politics, small victories are often long fought and require those we elect to commit to a long, hard and often thankless graft behind the scenes to get things done. Consider Senator David Norris: his battle for equality for lesbian and gay people in Ireland started almost five decades before our recent referendum.

Integrity: being honest and fair and true to one's word. We need politicians whose judgment we respect, whose decisions are taken based on clear moral principles, and who we know, even when we don't agree with them, have approached their task with absolute honour. Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese were two such politicians.

Leadership: whether motivating canvassers on a rainy Monday or rallying the party behind a tough decision, politicians - at every level - must bring people with them. To do that they need to empathise, to motivate, to communicate, to build a team around a shared vision and keep that team inspired, committed and focused on the goal.

And finally, passion: our politicians must have a vision, one they believe in. They must be able to tell us with conviction, as we listen patiently on our front doorstep, how Ireland will be a better place if they are elected. No one doubts Paul Murphy's conviction, or Eoghan Murphy's or Catherine Murphy's. Their views may be starkly opposed, but their belief in what's right is total.

So, as we think about who we might elect, consider whether they have the courage, tenacity, integrity, leadership and passion to do the job. Let's hope they do, because after they set foot in Dáil Éireann they will be deploying those traits every day. And they had better be a bit like Roy Keane too, because no one will be praising them.

Irish Independent

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