Tuesday 24 October 2017

John Downing: Our politicians are only human – let's think before we criticise them

SHANE McEntee's untimely death is an opportunity for us to reflect on our attitude to politicians and politics.

I well remember my first long conversation with Mr McEntee, who will be buried in his native Meath today.

A quick scoot through the archives allowed me pinpoint the precise day and date, Friday, April 20, 2007. Very quickly, the background story is as follows:

Fine Gael leader and would-be Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was on a swift general election campaign trip through Co Meath. The quiet village of Nobber, Mr McEntee's home place, seemed a good interception point.

We arrived early and the Kenny road-train was running predictably late. But it was a dry and, eventually, sunny day. So we waited, reassured by the growing group of local Fine Gael members and our ability to eavesdrop on them phoning their pals and charting the slow Kenny progress across the county.

Mr McEntee, the local TD for little more than two years, was there and we struck up a conversation. Our paths had first crossed soon after his election in March 2005 when his car had been stolen. The car had been recovered days later near Harold's Cross in Dublin and the only loss had been a couple of music cassettes.

The topic proved a conversational ice-breaker. Amid laughter, we quickly agreed that all three of us – car thief, politician and journalist – appeared to share the same ropey taste in music: country and western.

The Kenny road-train continued to be delayed that sunny afternoon. So we went for coffee, which led on to a quick walk about the village.

Another unlikely common point of interest proved to be gypsum ore. He pointed out the disused railway which, up to a decade ago, linked the gypsum quarries in Kingscourt, just a few miles to the north. I recalled years earlier picking up lumps of that same red stone, from faraway Co Cavan, on the railway line near Limerick on its way to the cement factory in Mungret.

Our encounter had everything and nothing to do with politics. It was about his love of his native village of Nobber and pride in its history and beautiful environs. The place is little more than 50 miles from Dublin – but in so many ways it has a life all of its own.

Mr McEntee came across as a very nice, slightly shy countryman and much like other blokes you may have the pleasure to meet in small towns across Ireland. The encounter completely chimed with his warm-hearted address on his first arrival at Leinster House after a big by-election win.

His main interest that day was to show his native place to a stranger and be welcoming.

We were always friendly to one another on the subsequent occasions we met. I occasionally wrote about him in passing but he never once sought me out to get publicity.

There was nothing much else to it – or indeed nothing much to it at all. But it recalls a lovely man who has died tragically young, leaving his family and friends utterly bereft. It all has extra piquancy because of the sorrow of losing a loved one to death at Christmas.

It has also made me reflect on how we treat our politicians. The past few months have been extremely hard-fought and hectic for politicians in the run-up to Christmas.

Many of us – not least this writer – have often been scathing about our elected representatives. The errors and omissions of those we have trusted to order our affairs have been considerable. These shortcomings have contributed to the hardship and disappointment now being endured by families whose breadwinner is without work and/or those families with loved ones obliged to emigrate.

It is often fair and, indeed, necessary to criticise our politicians' policies and performance. But it is more usually wrong to question their commitment and work rate.

It is always wrong to over-personalise criticisms.

It is particularly galling to find somebody saying, ''they are all the same'' about the people we choose to represent us. That statement is especially untrue.

Often the person who comes out with that phrase will soon afterwards contradict that old cant by going on to note a couple of exceptions – frequently a well-known, decent representative in the locality.

Sometimes it is true to say that our TDs in particular do share a similar characteristic: they often spend more time than is healthy working. What they do with this time and how they order it may very well be open to question sometimes. But their commitment is not.

Our politicians have blind spots and all sorts of flaws. They misjudge situations from time to time and make errors of all kinds. But the vast bulk of them are doing their best. They have chosen the hardest job in the modern world.

Shane McEntee's family and friends will lay him to rest in Nobber Cemetery today and they will not forget him. The rest of us will soon revert to criticising our elected representatives.

But we must think a little about just how we criticise our politicians in future.

Irish Independent

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