Monday 25 March 2019

Could our interrupted revolution lie in the humanising of our politicians?

PEOPLE POWER: Thousands of protesters gathered in O’Connell Street, Dublin in October last year. Photo: David Conachy
PEOPLE POWER: Thousands of protesters gathered in O’Connell Street, Dublin in October last year. Photo: David Conachy
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

It was a particularly Irish revolution from the beginning. And very polite, very middle class. What other country do you know that had a revolution by having an election and exchanging one centrist party for another almost identical centrist party? The great Democratic Revolution of 2011 spoke of a people who didn't want a revolution. It was very "careful there", and more than a bit "down with this sort of thing". This sort of thing mainly being Fianna Fail.

So we had our quiet revolution that wasn't really a revolution and then we complained that it wasn't a revolution. We acted shocked when the crowd we voted in, who were the same as the previous crowd, proved to be the same as the previous crowd. We acted all betrayed and muttered about it being Frankfurt's way etc.

We contented ourselves with this muttering for a few years, enduring all kinds of indignities, until one day, along came the water charges and the way they were handled and suddenly people decided they wanted their revolution after all. And they realised they hadn't got it by voting so they'd have to have it themselves, or at the very least they'd have to team up with people who know how to have revolutions.

So for a brief moment the cautious centre tasted the exhilaration of taking to the streets. They flirted a bit with the radical protest crowd and they hadn't felt so alive since they flirted with that bohemian girl back in college. And much like with her, it was fun for a while.

But just like the hash and the same Leonard Cohen album over and over again eventually freaked them out back in college, the revolution got a bit heavy too. Initially, the protests were great fun and you could bring granny and the kids. But then people realised that, much like back at that Bohemian squat in college, at the end of the day, you weren't really sure who you were getting into bed with.

So people drifted away from that revolution and back to the safety of squaredom.

But there is still a sense that something needs to change, that it's not just good enough to get bought off with a few tax cuts, agreeing to pretend that nothing ever happened. The revolution isn't dead man, it's just been interrupted. There's been a change in our consciousness and we need it acknowledged.

Sinn Fein might be the answer for some. They are like that beardy, mature-student, trad-music guy back in college. Very poetic and charming, even if we keep hearing unsettling stories from old girlfriends.

But whatever changes on the surface and in the superficial make-up of the Dail, there is a sense that something deeper needs to change. The world has changed out there - how we shop, how we get our information, how we live, how we communicate. It makes sense that how we are ruled needs to change too. The top-down, one-too-many, go-to-people's-funerals model doesn't work anymore.

You could imagine that the revolution is happening right across the spectrum. Politics in this country is changing, albeit in a very quiet, slow way. In the last few months there have been three moments, which suggested a new generation of politics, a quiet revolution.

Last month, when the Dail was discussing homelessness, Jonathan O'Brien, a Sinn Fein TD from Cork, said that he had a brother, homeless due to heroin addiction, who could not find accommodation. There were a few unfortunate responses to O'Brien's intervention but it was most definitely some kind of a moment in the Dail, when a politician revealed himself to be a real person, connected to an issue, someone with skin in the game. As Miriam Lord said at the time, "They don't like it when the real world intrudes. These sorts of things don't really happen to TDs."

Another moment was when Leo Varadkar sat down opposite Miriam O' Callaghan for his birthday interview recently and awkwardly told her, and anyone who didn't know, that he is gay. Again, this is the kind of thing that doesn't really happen to TDs. Yet here was Leo saying he was a human being in all its glorious complications, not just a mere TD whose private life is conducted in another, unrelated chamber.

Then, two weeks ago, when the Dail was discussing fatal foetal abnormalities, Richard Boyd Barrett stood up and said. "Next Tuesday 13 years ago I had to bury my daughter Ella, who was born with fatal foetal abnormalities".

"She would be 13 this spring," he continued. "It was a beautiful spring day exactly like today when we had to bury her. And myself and her mother and her two brothers think about her every day."

The beautiful simplicity of his personal testimony was more powerful than any other argument made in that debate.

The truth, as Kurt Vonnegut says, is powerful stuff, because people don't expect it.

The revolution could be happening all around us, and it could be that TDs are going to stop being another species, a ruling class who rise above the petty concerns of the rest of us, who put aside their private lives when they walk in that chamber.

Maybe the revolution could be that TDs become the kind of people that "these sorts of things" do happen to. "These sorts of things" being life.

It's a revolution we would all welcome, and what's more, one we would all be comfortable with. It would truly represent a break with the old politics, a new generation coming forward with new ways.

John Drennan's Guide to Politics - Spring 2015

The next election will change your life. In a special supplement with the Sunday Independent, John Drennan presents his guide to Irish politics.

Sunday Independent

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