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!