Dáil deputies are well employed listening to the concerns of their constituents
Opinion: genuine representation of the interests of voters should not be written off as parish pump politics
Our TDs are often written off as mere ‘messenger boys’, but is their behaviour much different from that of parliamentary representatives in other countries?
The following quote appears in the autobiography of a former Irish cabinet minister: “Foreign colleagues were amazed in an interval of some international conference to watch me signing replies to individual constituents on their personal problems, and to learn that I had earlier dictated these replies myself.”
Addressing a group of my students two years ago, a former south Tipperary TD shared a letter he received from constituents on the occasion of his retirement from Dáil Éireann: “Just to say thank you for all your good work . . . You helped my mother recently with a problem with trees. When I left your area to get married you even sent a good luck letter, which I have got framed. Good luck in the future.”
Let me say straight away that in the interest of making a point I have been misleading you: the Irish cabinet minister and the south Tipperary TD are fictions. The minister in question is, in fact, Tory grandee and former British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, while the TD is Old Labourite and former speaker of the British House of Commons Betty Boothroyd. The quotes are taken from Hurd’s and Boothroyd’s memoirs.
Just imagine if two retired Irish politicians uttered these words at one of the myriad of summer schools taking place. They would be subjected to immediate derision from the assembled political commentators. Only in Ireland’s dysfunctional political system, we would be told, could a cabinet minister be devoting himself to constituency affairs at an international conference.
On talk shows the retired politicians would invariably be labelled as parish pump representatives who are more interested in attending funerals and getting potholes filled. From rural villages to international conferences, it would be opined that Irish politicians are simply incapable of moving beyond their parochial mentality. Hopes for political reform will always be dashed, it would be concluded, for as long as Irish politicians remain stuck in what is essentially a pre -modern mindset.
Yet, two former British MPs from different political backgrounds – both of whom enjoyed distinguished national careers – obviously attached considerable importance to their constituency roles.
I would like to make three observations about contemporary commentary on TDs and their constituency role. First, it is erroneously assumed that the practice of national representatives discharging constituency obligations is a peculiarly Irish phenomenon. The reality is very different. MPs in most liberal democracies devote a significant amount of time and resources to constituency work.
In Germany’s rural districts an MP’s weekend schedule would replicate that of his Kerry or Waterford counterpart. Function after function is attended in the hope of meeting as many constituents as possible, not to mention gaining media coverage. Perhaps some German MPs even attend funerals!
Members of the French National Assembly behave primarily as constituency servants rather than national legislators. Like Ireland, members tend to be very much rooted in their localities.
The United States Congress is typically classified as a system that exercises real law-making power. Nevertheless, members of the House of Representatives, in particular, devote significant time and resources to nursing their constituencies.
Even in recently created regional assemblies such as Wales and Scotland, members have not proved themselves to be immune from constituency work. This applies to members elected from regional lists and local constituencies.
Second, there is a tendency to treat constituency work as undifferentiated. Typically, constituency work in all its guises is lumped under the category of clientelism. The commentary fails to distinguish, for example, between addressing individual grievances and representing the interests of the constituency as a whole.
Ideally, TDs should not be dealing with so many individual grievances. However, what is termed constituency case work in other countries features prominently in the workload of MPs in countries as varied as Malta, New Zealand and Canada.
Third, constituency work is perceived to be an intrinsically “bad thing”. The ultimate opprobrium is to describe a TD as a parish pump politician or messenger boy or girl.
However, I often wonder whether commentators ever consider that TDs might actually have some very important messages to deliver to ministers and civil servants. It is worth bearing in mind that the potential closure of a hospital or Garda station is no trivial matter for those who might be affected by the decision.
Clearly, in most liberal democracies MPs have national and constituency obligations. Both roles can overlap and there can obviously be a tension between the two.
Essentially, though, in any liberal democracy including Ireland it is about attempting to get the balance right.
As discussions on reforming Ireland’s political system continue unabated, it is time that the commentary on TDs and their constituency role moved beyond the jaded language of parish pump and potholes.
A more informed public discussion is required. And any discussion should cease casting Ireland in such an atypical guise.
Even in a reformed system which would shift power towards the legislature, representing the constituency should remain an important democratic obligation for TDs. After all, it is this aspect of Irish politics that has provided a crucial link between governors and governed.