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Local Politics, Sinn Féin and commitment… or, do you want to work until you drop? October 23, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Local Politics, Sinn Féin, The Left.
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I’ve meant to look more closely at the most recent issues of Magill. There’s a lot to think about in there – particularly an article Splintered Sunrise drew attention to about the ‘fate’ of the left written from an unusually idiosyncratic view. Still, events get in the way, always with the events. Meanwhile let’s in passing note an inaccurate swipe at Politics.ie in Magill in the most recent issue by Wigmore. Wigmore wrote:

Is there anything as awful as political blog sites? Not the sites of writers and personalities, but the bulletin boards and chat rooms. The hope that the likes of politics.ie would provide a useful debating chamber has receeded, as anoraks post endless amounts of abusive, juvenile messages attacking each other, or attacking mainstream politicians, often on the various aspects of … their physical appearance. It has become the cyber equivalent of the toilet door, with scrawled slogans and unsigned messages. Are these the malcontents who can’t get letters published in the newspapers. Or don’t they have social lives or walking-talking girlfriends, or boyfriends? Get out a bit more, guys and girls. And anyway, the election is over.

Yes. Well. Anyone who does more than pass through knows that far from being graffiti, or anonymous, it is easy to get to know and engage with people constructively. And the accusation of attacks on ‘physical appearance’ puzzle me. But it’s also missing the point. P.ie is interesting because it’s fluid, it’s combative and often partisan. That may sometimes be a weakness, but more often it’s a strength, and for me it remains enormously useful for tracking current events in way that more mainstream and sedate news sources simply are not. And by the way, much as I find Magill entertaining in its own way, the current bi-monthly configuration is a bit puzzling when contextualised by the promise on the masthead of being a ‘monthly’ magazine…

And reading Politics.ie, what do I see?
Why that Nicky Kehoe of Sinn Féin has resigned his seat on Dublin City Council.

Or as breakingnews.ie put it:

A leading Sinn Féin member of Dublin City Council has resigned his seat, the party confirmed tonight.

A spokeswoman for the party said he was the fifth Sinn Féin councillor to resign for personal reasons since 2004 and is the 16th member of the 52 person Dublin council to bow out.

He is reported to have taken the decision for personal family reasons and to allow for younger members in the party to come through…

Already the rumour mill has swung into action. The latter day Kremlinologists who delight in such matters are working over time on reading this. Is it a sign than SF is significantly damaged by the 2007 Election? A portent of troubles over the Peace Process? A guarded signal of discontent by a Councillor who nearly but not quite captured a seat in the constituency in 2002 and who then saw Mary Lou McDonald MEP also fail to win the seat this year

I’ll be honest, I don’t know. I’ve seen Kehoe in action over the past number of years and he’s impressed me as a hard working representative. But so has Christy Burke – who laboured even longer and arguably for less reward. It’s telling that the current mutterings seem to ignore how he gave way as candidate back in the day for the younger Kehoe.

But putting all that aside I think for once it is possible that the old excuse of ‘personal family reasons’ might just be true. Why so? Simply because of the time lines and the math. The next local election is in 2009. The next General Election in 2012 (if not sooner). The local election after that will be in 2014. That’s seven years into the future. That’s the level of commitment demanded and it’s no small commitment. Working on DCC, indeed on any Council, is a largely unrewarding and difficult task. Evening after evening is taken up by meetings. One’s personal life is mortgaged, often – to be honest – to the possibility of future political success. Now, let’s not overstate this. Some people enjoy this enormously. I know a Councillor in the constituency who told me that at first he found the job too time-consuming but in the last year or so had begun to really enjoy it. That happens. But the opposite dynamic also happens.

Let’s also consider that for smaller parties such as SF (and the Labour party, and others) the demands on their Councillors are different to those of the larger parties. It is not coincidental that at residents meetings it is usually the ‘left’ parties, and Fianna Fáil who turn up more often than not. They have to be there. Smaller party or independent machines simply don’t have the heft that the larger ones do. Each vote is fought for on the micro level. And that means being there, on the ground, day in day out.

The banality of evil is a phrase that has achieved a certain currency. Well, what about the banality of local politics?

I’ve been there numerous times and seen the reps from the other side, on campaigns, on residents groups and so on.

There’s nothing like it. Sandwiched into livingrooms of houses, where residents and Councillors attempt to deal with one or other seemingly mundane issue. Traffic, crime, funding for community projects. Usually there is a pall of cigarette smoke. Sure, people go into the garden to have a few, but they tend to leave the door open.

The mind wanders at these things, particularly because agendas appear to be seen as merely the springboard for near Joycean excursions on any and all topics. Two, three hours of that and one is happy to head home and not appear for another month – if the local committee doesn’t want to meet in the meantime or there isn’t a Policing Forum meeting, or some sort of other activity.

What it must be like for the public reps is a different matter. “Not fun” springs to mind as the answer.

And progress is all in political endeavour. For Nicky Kehoe, Councillor, one-time candidate, and a candidate who came tantalisingly close to snatching the prize, the thought of another seven years, or perhaps more, must be the prospect of a living hell. A political ground-hog day.

How would 2008 be different from 2006? Or worse again, 2011? Or 2013? He is 51 today. In 2013 he will be 57. I can only compare it to my situation where I turned 42 last week (cash, no cheques please). The thought of seven years of relentless politics that would leave me still the right side of 50 is disturbing.

And of course written into this is a subtext regarding Mary Lou McDonald. Will she be the Election candidate in 2012? Again, I don’t know. But SF, as with all parties, is looking to the long term. They have to start now, today, on building the profile of a candidate for 2012. I suspect that five years from now the political landscape in the constituency will be rather different. No Ahern for one thing. Perhaps some other party TDs might decide to step down (although that seems – as best as I can judge it – to be highly unlikely). Perhaps SF thinks that with another leader, perhaps a rural based leader, FF might be vulnerable in the urban centres to a renewed assault on its working class vote. Kehoe might well look at the vote and consider that while he came close, MLM didn’t come quite as close, and while an SF candidate might do better – much better- next time there are no guarantees. So why take the risk?

Politics is a tiring business. It takes a very special sort of mind to be willing to remain active and energetic across multiple decades, to stay loyal to a single party, to a single ideology. It needs support, tangible personal and political achievements and the prospect of more in the future. I often look at the vibrant (overly so some might suggest) Fine Gael benches in the Dáil and I wonder how energetic they will be in five years time after five years of opposition have worn them down – and remember they have the advantage of having made it into the heart of the representative democracy. Dublin City Council? Real achievements, fundamental progress, somewhere that genuine positive impacts can be made in enabling people. But for those with ambitions in politics or with a hinterland beyond politics?

So, I’d have enormous sympathy for Kehoe, and indeed any other Councillor in the same predicament, which is to say almost all of them.

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1. Wednesday - October 23, 2007

the accusation of attacks on ‘physical appearance’ puzzle me

If you want an example, check out any of the threads on Mary Lou, or Ivana Bacik.

On the general point of this post I think it is fair to say that SF expects its public representatives to work really, really hard (and I’m not drawing comparisons with other parties but only speaking about the one I know) and it’s easy to understand how people just burn out – especially after as many years as someone like Nicky has done it. Most of them cannot go full time, either, so they have to do it alongside their regular paid employment which can be absolutely impossible to manage. And those who do go full time with the party don’t get much financial reward. I think we’re going to really need to look at our policy of putting everyone on an average industrial wage – particularly in Dublin. I mean I’m a single person, who hardly lives an extravagant lifestyle, and I’m struggling to pay an affordable housing mortgage on my Sinn Féin wage. I can’t imagine how someone with a family manages.

On an even broader level a lot of this just comes down to the extravagant demands made on public representatives by their constituents (and to get back to Nicky, it has to be said that he is based in one of the most particularly demanding of constituencies). There is a desperate need for a change in political culture in this country, although I have absolutely no idea how to go about it.

Finally just a couple points of clarification – Nicky hasn’t actually stepped down, but has just announced his intention to do so early in the new year. And yes, the plan is for Mary Lou to seek the GE nomination again in 2012 (or hopefully sooner).

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2. John O'Neill - October 23, 2007

Felix Gallagher, SF Councillor in Blanchardstown is the latest to resign due to family commitments. Felix wasn’t elected in the local elections he was a cooption after the elected counciller Martin Christie resigned reportedly because of an unpaid ‘loan’ he got from a previous employer.

Gallagher, in an interview with the Nortside People stated that the pressure of having a young family and balancing his duties as a councillor was too much.

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3. Garibaldy - October 23, 2007

Interesting comments Wednesday. Firstly the political culture thing. I think (and this is true of the north too) that there is a large element of clientalism in the dynamics of local government. In a world where virtually all the Dáil and major local government parties offer minor variations on the same thing, how else can a candidate or councillor separate him/herself out but by this type of thing. The shift in political culture needed, I think you’re saying, is to a more ideological style of politics, where one votes first and foremost for a party, not an individual. Perhaps a list system would be of use. Having said that, seeing some of the muppets elected for the parties in the north (the DUP Lord Mayor Eric Smyth when Clinton visited springs to mind), a list system is likely to have pitfalls of its own.

On the average industrial wage thing. I have to say I always took that with a large pinch of salt. If the (i.e. any) party is buying clothes, paying for transport and other expenses of the candidate, then the wage itself is more like disposable income. I guess what I’m saying is that there are ways round this, and I’d be very surprised if PSF isn’t already exploiting them. On a somewhat related note, before the DL split in 1992, one of the reasons The WP was in financial difficulties was because those about to leave had stopped paying the proportion of their Dáil wages into central funds (while others were supposedly stashing cash down the back of radiators in offices as funds to set up the new organisation).

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4. Mark P - October 23, 2007

My main problem with the article is that it is sort of looking at politics as a career path. This is a somewhat alien way of looking at things from my perspective. Most councillors will never be TDs. So why should a lack of an opportunity to be a TD be considered a reasonable excuse for abandoning the people who elected you? Nobody forced you to stand for election. I couldn’t care less if you have personal ambitions to make waffling speeches in the Dáil someday.

I agree that the clientelist aspect of Irish politics is grim, but even without that I’d expect people who are claiming to represent me to work hard to do so.

While I’m here, I’m a bit amused at the complaints from PSF members and full timers about how the average industrial wage isn’t enough to live on. I hate to break it to you but that’s what more or less what most workers earn!

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5. WorldbyStorm - October 23, 2007

Mark P, I know where you’re coming from but I can’t help feeling you’re trying to elide my point which was about human responses to periods of extended political activity with an ideological one.

Whatever level of political and ideological grounding each representative is human. The basic attritional nature of local politics is such that people devote enormous time and energy to it and that can fade over a long period. That’s not abandoning people – particularly if there is a self-recognition that one cannot bring more to bear on that front.

And, it’s also very human – and politically astute – to have ambitions, and in the current structure there is the obvious destination of the Dáil get a stronger platform for your party. That’s not abandonment of people either, in fact it’s arguably the opposite – and worth noting that this ‘people’ you talk about want TDs to represent them. That’s who they want coming to local meetings. The Councillors are fine, but the TDs are better. Clientelist, sure, but also a recognition that power resides in various areas.

And surely we want better, and we realise that the current system is invidious? Not a sort of political machismo whereby we *prove* just what great class warriors we are by enduring it year after year. That’s a tad Stakhanovite for my taste and futile in a human sense because people burn out.

BTW wasn’t Wednesday expressing the point that the average industrial wage isn’t enough to live on and saying it was impossible to see how people get by on it?

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6. Wednesday - October 24, 2007

The shift in political culture needed, I think you’re saying, is to a more ideological style of politics, where one votes first and foremost for a party, not an individual.

Well, not necessarily. Voting for an individual can be compatible with ideological politics too, though it would probably require a loosening of the party whip system which is extremely strict in this country. I also agree there are pitfalls with the list system…. I got into this in a bit more detail on my own blog a while ago in this post.

If the (i.e. any) party is buying clothes, paying for transport and other expenses of the candidate, then the wage itself is more like disposable income.

I have to say that I have never heard of anyone getting the party to buy them clothes. Many of our reps say – and I stress that they say this when talking to other party workers, not to the press or the wider public – that the ability to retain their expenses is the only thing that keeps them from going into debt as a result of their duties with the party. There is little “disposable” about it.

And yes WBS, that is exactly what I was saying. The AIW is too low to live on in Dublin – for party reps, party workers or indeed for anyone.

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7. ejh - October 24, 2007

I also agree there are pitfalls with the list system

You’re not kidding. It’s how things are done where I live in Spain and I’m extremely unimpressed with it. Not only can you not vote for individuals, but you don’t even know who they are beyond a name. But they get elected, because if you’re number two or three on the PP or PSOE list you’re going to be practically automatically. Which means their loyalty is owed entirely to the party machine, a degree of patronage well in excess even of that which happens with most political parties and systems. It’s a recipe for cronyism and corruption and the separation of the public from the political process.

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8. ejh - October 24, 2007

I also think there’s a degree to which we need to defend representative democracy and the role of councillors and TDs. There is a very sizeable saloon-bar tendency to claim that they are all corrupt, that they are all living it up on expenses and so on. The result can be that people in politics, much like people in the public sector, go about their business in a hostile atmosphere ,hounded by the media and unsupported by the public – the result of which, amongst other things, is that nobody would want to actually take part except the cynical and ambitious.

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9. Garibaldy - October 24, 2007

Wednesday,

I know of other parties where representatives are bought suits or whatever for public appearances or performances, which I meant rather than their socks etc.

EJH has a point about the public perception of politicians BUT we do need to remember that so sick is southern society that being corrupt is more likely to raise your vote than collapse it. Was it Michael Lowry who got two and a half quotas after being exposed as having had his house built for him? It’s not just politicians that are corrupt. Be it Guards fixing traffic issues for a big box of chocolates for the wife, or planning officials, or political control of appointments to state jobs, or universities or whatever, we need to face up to the reality that much of southern society is rotten, not just the political class. A symptom not a cause.

Not it seems that much of northern society is that much better.

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10. ejh - October 24, 2007

The same would be true of Spain – there’s a term enchufe to describe the way you always have to find some personal contact to get something, or get something done, rather than it beingdone properly, in turn. I doubt that this is entirely to do with the party list system (probably the other way around – the party list system appeals to a system enmeshed in patronage) but has a lot to do with a background of fascism and other authoritarian governments.

(I can imagine some teenage libertarian popping up to say how this all because it’s government and it would all be different if we privatised it. Oddly, the kids seem to overlook the enormous amount of corruption and patronage that exists in the private sector….)

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11. Joe - October 24, 2007

Getting back to SF city councillors stepping down. It seems to me that, yes working as a councillor is soul destroying, relationship destroying work. And that’s one reason why people might give it up after a few years. But go back to the reason why the likes of Nicky Kehoe got elected in the first place. He had fire in his belly for the cause – SF were going places, a United Ireland was on the horizon. Now, it seems to me that the fire in his and his like’s bellies has been quenched. SF is rapidly becoming “just another party”. The cause is lost again. If the fire was still in the belly, then they would put up with the drudgery of council work. I believe it’s a sign of a deeper malaise within SF in the South.

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12. WorldbyStorm - October 24, 2007

No doubt there is an element of that too Joe. But it would be wrong to overstate it. My experience of SF is that it remains largely in good heart. That’s subjective of course and may be simple boosterism but to me it’s telling having seen other formations weather similar storms and come out quite the opposite.

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13. Wednesday - October 24, 2007

Nicky’s been talking about this since 2002 though. In 2004 he made it clear that would be his last election. Remember 2004? Hardly a ‘malaise’ time for us.

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14. WorldbyStorm - October 24, 2007

That’s a good point Wednesday. Having said that its hard to see recent events having no effect. On the other hand the successes in the North might serve to mitigate a lot of that.

Incidentally, on a completely different subject did you or anyone else see the trailer for the programme about Michael Jackson on Channel 4. The background music was Exercise One by Joy Division. It was brilliantly selected to go with the image of him and his child. Ironic and sinister.

Sorry, the pedantic music fan in me coming out there. Normal service will be resumed immediately.

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15. Local Politics, Sinn Féin and commitment… or, do you want to work until you drop? - October 29, 2007

[...] WorldbyStorm Made an interesting post today on cedarlounge.wordpress.comHere’s a quick excerpt: [...]

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