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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 18, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

    From the Sports Field to the Political Arena

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    There must be countries where political leaders are selected  after they have undertaken a rigorous study-course on democratic institutions and how they should be run, followed by a series of interviews with an independent panel, testing their suitability for the job. Maybe it’s like that in Scandinavia, the model democracies of our time.

    Here in Ireland, it is all too often a family relationship with an outgoing TD which opens the door to electoral success. It sometimes strikes me that we should call on the public not to vote for anyone who is related to a member of the outgoing Dail. That would be a good way of curtailing the dynasticism that is all too common in Irish politics.

    Having said that, some of our better politicians happen to have previous family connections with the Dail chamber. But it’s gone too far and it’s time to start applying the broader criteria in a more serious way.

    Another short-cut to electoral office is to become a sports star. Again, some who  have come in by that particular route have turned out well. At least they had a record of accomplishment on the sports field, as distinct from just being born into a political family.

    A new book, “Dail Stars”, by Sunday Tribune  journalist Conor McMorrow shows  how the GAA
    has been a breeding-ground for Irish politicians for over a century.  By devoting a chapter to
    each of the 15 ‘Dáil Stars’ the book tells each player/politician’s individual GAA and political story.

    All shades of the political spectrum are represented, from the deep blue of  Mussolini-fan Eoin O’Duffy, to Austin Stack, Jack Lynch, Dan Spring, Jimmy Deenihan, Martin Ferris, Henry Kenny (father of Enda) and more. The highlights include:

    #How Blueshirts founder and former Ulster GAA Secretary, Eoin O’Duffy, invited a Nazi
    spy to an All-Ireland final

    #How Mayo football star and TD Henry Kenny  invited TDs to his own all-night ‘wake’ in the Dáil bar

    #Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferris on winning an under-21 All-Ireland title as an IRA fugitive on
    the run

    #Fine Gael TD and Kerry legend Jimmy Deenihan on his heart-to-heart with playwright John B. Keane about entering politics

    #Six-time All-Ireland winner Jack Lynch and his ambition to bring the level in the bottle of whiskey  ‘below Thurles’

    #How Sean Flanagan, the GAA’s answer to Roy Keane, tried to scrap his own government
    department as a minister

    #Dublin GAA star Des Foley and the Arms Trial.

    #plus the ‘Also-Rans’: GAA stars who unsuccessfully stood for election. A nice wee present for the sport-and-politics enthusiast in your life, “Dail Stars” is published by Mentor Books at €16.99 paperback

    • Joanna Tuffy says:


      There are independent panels in Ireland to select our representatives – they are called voters. Any proposal to move away from voters and to move to what you suggest is a move to less democracy.

      Your argument about dynastic politics being a problem is a great red herring. It was ideology, promoted by people, most of whom had no family background in politics, such as Mary Harney, and Charlie McCreevy, that has led us to where we are.

      Anyone should be entitled to run for election and let the voters decide. It is the voters pregrogative to vote for a person whatever their birth circumstances. The majority of TDs (approximately 75 to 80 per cent according to Professor Michael Gallagher TCD) are first time members of their families in the Dail.

      Your formula, if applied in America, would have people not vote for Hilary Clinton barred for President, because she was related to Bill? You would exclude FDR because of his ancestors and the late Senator Ted Kennedy because of his relationship to John F. Kennedy. Brian Lenihan would not be Minister for Finance because his father was a TD and likewise Sean Sherlock would not be a TD because of a passion for politics held in common with his father. So nothing to do with merit, just birth circumstances. Would you call on newspapers not to consider employing the children of journalists or school boards from considering for a post the children of teachers? Likewise the children of Gardai, business people and so on?

      The reality is that families get involved in politics, just as they do in the community. Voters have also chosen not to vote for people despite their family background in politics, in fact this was very evident in the outcome of some efforts of the children, and siblings of Fianna Fail TDs and Senators at the last local elections.

      Elections involve one person persuading another to vote for them. Our system is rooted in that view of democracy and it would be the most terrible irony if as a result of our economic problems we moved to a less democratic system such as what you propose at the beginning of this post.

    • Michael says:


      I don’t think Deaglan was making a serious proposal with his opening paragraph.

      You seem to be content with the status quo of a small number of families dominating Irish politics throughout recent history. I think it is a sign of something very sick with Irish politics. At the moment what are arguably the five most powerful roles in Irish politics; Taoiseach, Tanaiste, Minister for Finance, Leader of the Opposition and European Commissioner, are all held by the children of former TDs.

      While voters may elect dynasty members, political parties nominate them and promote them up the party ranks.

      I don’t think anyone should be barred from standing for election, but I think we need to discuss the dynastic situation we have and we need to question it. I think it is a symptom of greater problems; the parochialism and clientelism as well as that politics in Ireland attracts little fresh blood (or perhaps puts up barriers to outsiders).

    • robespierre says:


      You are certainly consistent and you have always held your line. I think what is true is that voters get the politicians they deserve whether that be for good or for bad.

      I think that in Ireland, our political experiment does need freshening up. I definitely think we need to look at PR-STV as a system and whether it is giving us the calibre of public representative we need. Certainly, I know of one deputy that I wouldn’t hire to clean the toilets in a sweet shop and surprise, surprise he was caught cogging in his maiden speech. The deputy could not possibly make as useful a contribution to public life as the running mate he outpolled who was a distinguished businessman. The Scottish parliament is elected using a combination of PR (based on euro regions) and a list for Holyrood. I would like to see about 25% of the Dáil seats being available for deputies via a list system. It could become a refuge for apparatchiks or it could simply become a means by which specialism is accomodated in the legislative chamber.

      Should this not prove possible there are other options that should at the very least be seriously considered including gender quotas, something I have long believed to be a no brainer. We need to change the format and means by which the Dáil does its business and regularise its sitting calendar. I also like the Portuguese law that forces politicians to act in the national rather than local interest (so long Mattie, JHR, Michael Lowry etc.).

      A final thing I would like to see is the ceding of proper executive powers to local councils including the power to raise, retain and spend local taxes locally. I would also like to see the executive being appointed from more than one source. I am firmly of the belief that the French and American system whereby the cabinet has genuine expertise at the table is vastly preferable to the abortive mess we pass for good governance here.

      I would be quite happy to see you with your legal training looking at political reform, justice, equality, law reform or as minister for aged, children or disability. My issue is when you have a succession of people in key portfolios like Communications who have no understanding in any meaningful sense of the technology or what drives the industry. We have had successive failures in the portfolio going back as far as Michael Woods, Frank Fahy , Dermot Ahern and the awful Noel Dempsey.

      If I could limit myself to one reform above all however, I would impose term limits on service in the Dáil. I would impose a maximum amount of terms at 4 or 20 years with no more than three terms allowed to run consecutively.

      The only way to help try to tackle clientelism in Irish politics is to try and increase the turnover and improve the gender imbalance in the Dáil. I think a lot of the bedblockers are grey men who to quote Cromwell have sat too long for any good they have been doing.

    • Liam says:

      I have to say its a fallacy to assume that one would have a better system if only the individuals concerned could be picked by a more “scientific” method. From the Roman Senate to the corruption of the US political system, the fundamental flaw will always be the ability of special interests to buy the system. A better system would move away from the concept of a professional politician.

    • So what that voters (ourselves included) vote for- nice, local, hard grafter from a good family. We are human beings voting for other human beings, not robots voting for robots (to paraphrase a recent letter writer to The Irish Times). That’s not the problem. The problem lies with the ideology of the parties, that the voters knowingly voted for, in Fianna Fail’s case in their droves. We don’t need people to stop voting for the nice, local, hard grafter from a good family. What we need is for them to vote for the nice, local grafter from a good family, who has a different ideology. Naturally I perceive that ideology to be Labour’s social democratic/democratic socialist one.

    • Hamilton says:

      I have an interest in politics, but no route into it. I live in a constituency where the next generation of TD candidates are the sons or daughters of TDs and already have been elected as local councillors. To be honest you wouldn’t let them run anything, but they know everyone and people vote for people they know, and not people that produce policies that may better their community. I don’t think it fair to ban them however. If the electorate want to be stupid, let them be, and let them pay the price every generation or so (as they are doing now). If you want to really open politics to new blood then term limits, or service years, are more equitable. Also reform of local government to allow for 2 tiers of representatives (councillor and local representative) may work better. The councillor can be a party member (or not), but a local representative would be barred from being one. Most people who want to help develop their local community want to do just that. A system, without political parties, can deliver on that desire.

    • Hamilton,

      Then you would end up with independent Fianna Failers, Independent Labour and so on. Are you just a disillusioned Fianna Failer that you are so anti party political? Parties are combinations of people that work together to achieve the deliver of particular ideas. There have been some very bad decisions by particular parties or combinations of parties in this country, but there also have been some very good ones. No more than you could ban someone for being a member of a particular family could you ban them for being a member of a political party. There is no parliament or local democracy in the free world that is made up entirley of indepenent representatives.

      People are quite nihilistic at the moment, but we take for granted our democracy at our peril. Unlike other EU countries we have never had a facist dictator for example. We have achieved peace out of two wars on this Island without a genocide. We can get out of this through politics.

    • I just want to add for Hamilton’ benefit when he says he has no route into politics. Many people (in the case of the Dail 75 to 80 per cent) are the first in their families to get elected. Before I was elected in 1999 to my local county council I spent a year where I used to leave work, walk or get a bus to part of my electoral area, and I would spend the afternoon and or evening knocking on doors. This meant that by the election time voters would tell my canvassers – yes I know her, I met her when she called to my door. I watched people like Joan Burton do the same. There is no shortcut for most into politics, It takes time and its hard work. You are local to somewhere, and you are part of a community and you let your community know that. That is your route in to politics.

    • robespierre says:

      Most academics would dispute your claim that we have never had a dictator. We have had a dysfunctional form of rule. For starters the Army Comrades Association only came into existence because of fascist behaviour by Fianna Fáil in the run-up to the 1932 election that they won. CnaG peacefully transferred power to Fianna Fáil.

      A reading of Irish history from then until 1948 cannot but exclude the fact that deVelera possessed many of the traits of the dictators of the period. He also exercised many of these traits up to and including the decision to execute IRA men in the Curragh during the Second World War.

      He was elected on a number of occasions with the implicit and explicit backing of the Catholic hierarchy who were implaccably opposed to the politics of a crimson hue from the “Godless east” that Connolly, your party’s founder, was much taken with.

      Most political academics these days distinguish between the abuse of office through a stanglehold on the ballot box and dictatorship by coup d’état. For instance, Robert Mugabe started his land redistribution programme (and destruction of the Zimbabwean economy) during a mandate that was deemed to have been the result of free and fair elections. Just as deVelera did. Many people consider Mugabe to be a de facto if not a de iure dictator. I could say the same about Kagame in Rwanda and Moseveni in Uganda. In fact these latter two are probably better examples.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:


      Most academics? How do you know what most academics would say on this topic? It’s quite a depressing version of Irish History you have that casts us in the light of Rwanda, Zimbabwe and De Valera, as a dictator.

      Labour has not done well in Irish elections up to now but till the day I die I will defend the right of the voters to choose their representative. There is no stranglehood on the ballot box. The task is for those with alternatives to get out there and persuade the voters of their point of view. But you won’t do that if you look down your nose on voters and want to take their right to vote for who they wish, away from them, as you do with your list proposal. Berlusconi gets a good class of representative through his list system I suppose you think?

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