Most of us have, at some point in our lives, heard the advice: The three things you should never discuss with people are politics, religion, and money. I’ve often thought that the Irish never got the memo on such a rule, because for a country which almost makes a national sport out of referenda and elections, we often discuss the actions, statements, and flaws of our politicians. We’ve seen debate on whether or not certain manifestations of local or national government should even exist; in Ireland, those debates have recently ranged from having directly-elected city mayors to whether or not we abolish our Seanad. We so often hear dismissive statements in the pub or on the street that politicans are “all the same”; they’re “only interested in lining their pockets” or “getting their cushy pension” and they’re “all a shower of wasters”. The same lines have been exclaimed by frustrated citizens for generations, yet rarely is an alternative to the situation proposed, let alone one agreed upon.
In the past, hearing people be so exasperated made me question myself; what had I not yet realised or experienced to bring me to the same conclusion? Despite living through a couple of economic storms here, had I been so sheltered, somehow, that I failed to react to what our governments have done? Was there a PR spin campaign going on which needed cynic-ready glasses to see through, like those 3D optical illusion games we used to have as kids?
…to other our adversary is to dehumanise ourselves, as we forget that it is from our society and community which such politicans come.
In Ireland, like many Western democracies, we can sometimes regard our political representatives – especially ones we don’t trust, agree with, or just don’t like – as being part of some sinister group, far removed from our own social circles or communities. They are othered in our minds, almost from the point of their election, in an attempt to reaffirm our beliefs and understanding of the world around us. Instead, it’s more likely that such representatives and their supporters are closer to home than we’d like to admit. More importantly, to other our adversary is to dehumanise ourselves, as we forget that it is from our society and community which such politicans come. In other words, if the ‘shower of wasters’ who walks into our national parliament was voted in by our fellow citizens, what’s to stop the rest of us from falling victim to the same categorisation?
Such dismissive statements are, of course, made in a moment of frustrated disillusionment, and most people who have made them are aware that they generalise without a resolution to propose instead (unless they support another politician or party, in which case, at least they are engaged). Still, the sentiment expressed bemoans a sorry state of affairs where government serves a privileged section of society only, rather than the whole. This would be considered almost stereotypical for the opening scene of some dystopian science fiction novel, yet when the cynic regards a government voted in by their fellow citizens in the same light, there may be cause for concern. In the sci-fi novel, a band of heroes would come together to tear down the tyranny with an enlightened system formed by the liberated common folk, yet in real life, if every politican claims to act in the name of “the people”, the term risks losing its meaning or having it warped entirely into something else.
When neighbouring countries such as the United Kingdom or the United States are in the midst of existential crises – from the aftermath of Brexit to the Trump administration era – we must, as a nation, be conscientious enough not to become divided into extremes by othering each other ad nauseum. If past politicians have left sections of our community worse off, either financially or socially, let us listen to those who offer an alternative or a remedy, instead of those seeking to demonise the vulnerable. If there are people in our society who feel our culture is being eroded by newcomers or other minorities, we have a duty to ourselves to show the vibrant and ever-evolving culture we share, and how it honours our ancient heritage. If we are worried about older ways of working dying out, from the town’s corner shop to the small farm, we must find a constructive way to modernise them and keep them sustainable, instead of bemoaning their demise or disengaging from efforts to help.
Brendan Behan once said: “It is not that the Irish are cynical; it’s rather that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody.” For as witty as I find the line, I disagree; it’s more that we don’t like to put people (or things) on a pedestal to admire or worship. In politics, this is possibly our greatest strength. Our ancestors’ desire to break away from Britain is the same one which keeps our politicians and other institutions in check; not to be independent of them, but to ensure that they don’t act unfairly against its people. The fear that arises from neighbouring waves of populism, however, is that our innate cynicism mutates into a desire to turn against our own institutions and communities without making any sound alternatives available.
Now, almost 100 days (at time of writing) since our general election, we must consider it our collective duty to keep a cynical eye on our incoming government, but to remember that our politicians are not just representative of our constituencies, but our communities also. Politics start with a conversation and a healthy debate, but demonising our politicians or our institutions is not the way forward. We must strike a balance between hope, pragmatism, and cynicism – nowhere else is this balance more important than in our politics, both local and national.