Wir leben alle unter dem gleichen Himmel, aber wir haben nicht alle den gleichen Horizont.
(All of us live under the same sky, but we don’t all have the same horizon.)
Recently, I was asked two questions as part of a group, which got me thinking. The first was what the best thing about Ireland was. The second was what was the biggest problem or issue facing Irish society at the moment.
Many of us in the group thought the same thing about what was good about Ireland: Community. We all agreed that the Irish have a strong sense of community, so much so that it breaks down social barriers, and we’re a country that seems to believe that a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet. We’re a connected community, and if you met someone on the street (even a street abroad) they’ll probably know a relative, friend, or colleague of yours. Maybe it comes from being a relatively small country, or maybe it’s because the Irish are just that closely connected.
For a country that seems to put community at its heart, you’d expect the same qualities to be reflected in its government. That doesn’t seem to be the case, however, when three homeless people die within days of one another, and only now does Leinster House scramble to appear caring of its community. We’ve been here before, however; back in 2014, when a homeless man died metres from Leinster House. What is so sad, is that little appears to have changed since then, despite the vigils and protests at the time.
Homelessness isn’t the only problem the Irish state faces at the moment, however, between data protection concerns with the Public Services Card, our ever-pressured health system, the long wait for a referendum on the 8th Amendment, and – of course – the effects of Brexit on this country. With the exception of that last issue (which is a mess for the UK government, let alone our own) how does a government get itself into such hot water, when it was elected by us, the Irish, close-knit, community-focused public?
First, there’s the issue of all those people who didn’t vote; just under 35% of all registered voters. Arguably, that 35% consisted of people who weren’t bothered, disillusioned politics, unsure how to vote, or not in the country at the time. No-one will be able to accurately survey those who don’t vote here, so speculation is the name of the game there.
For those 65.1% who did vote, however, they decided to place enough trust in someone from their local community to represent them. They may have voted for someone as a ‘best of a bad lot’ option, or they may have met their chosen candidate in the past, and been impressed by them. So, if we then place such trust and hope in these new Teachtaí Dála, at what point does the link between constituent and politcian break? Who severs those ties of trust first, or are they automatically broken once a newly-elected TD crosses the threshold into Dáil Éireann? Is it that our expectations of politicians are too high, or do they break our trust at the first chance they get?
Ever since I was a teenager, I had friends who were involved in politics in some form. I’ve had a good few friends in the Labour Party, one in Sinn Féin, one in the Alliance Party ‘up north’, and one friend even served as local mayor for his town in Denmark. I love having chats with them, because no matter their choice of political party, what they have in common is that they genuinely care about their community, their society, and their country.
I’ve always hated the throwaway remarks about politicians and other statesmen for that reason, statements like “sure, they do nothing anyway, they’re all a shower of [expletive]”. Some are, without a doubt, career politicians who have gotten used to the money, or because they wouldn’t be able to do much else after years in the job. Others, however, have real courage, heart, and compassion for their community and their country. It is a gruelling effort to put your neck out on the line – in a country which can consider such an action to be ‘getting notions’ – especially when they may be running as an independent or small party candidate, or without much funding for their campaign.
Is there a solution, however, to our collective distrust in politicians? Or, is it more that for as good as a politican may be, he or she will never be able to change the beast that is the civil service? Then again, for as many good intentions as a politician may have, would a civil servant not have the same? How many employees of the state does it take to create a bureaucracy? Every country has varying levels of red tape to fight, but it seem that despite all the good will for change in Ireland – both in and outside of Leinster House – we’re just not able to get there.
Maybe we need to remember that politics starts with the citizen: When was the last time you did something for that beggar on the street?