It’s time our TDs were free to forget about Mrs Murphy’s bed

Opinion: A mixed list system would mean that at least some politicians would not have to worry about their party colleagues

Four out of five for Fine Gael in Mayo. But do TDs from the same party spend too much time competing against each other? Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Four out of five for Fine Gael in Mayo. But do TDs from the same party spend too much time competing against each other? Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Fri, Feb 14, 2014, 12:01

One of the first politicians I followed on an election canvass was former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave in 1973. He was uneasy with journalists, particularly young ones in corduroy bellbottoms and platform boots, and his little moustache twitched suspiciously. As we set off to canvass the two-up-two-down redbrick council houses around Dún Laoghaire, I wondered why we weren’t hitting the more affluent roads. What sort of welcome would the leader of a centre-right party get in this working class district?

I needn’t have wondered. As the first door opened, it was clear Cosgrave was as welcome as Santa Claus. “Ah, Mr Cosgrave,” cooed the women as they thanked him for pleading their case with the council, or with social welfare. One woman, let’s call her Mrs Murphy, was too unwell to come down to the door.

“Did you get the bed, Mrs Murphy?” Cosgrave called up the narrow stairs.

“I did,” said Mrs Murphy. “God bless you, Mr Cosgrave, I did. And I’m in it.”


Conjugal rights
It was my first real lesson in Irish politics. The TD who gets stuff for people will be re-elected. Sometimes people’s expectations are bizarre. One man walked into a country TD’s clinic, took off his wellington boot and held up his diseased toe. He wanted the TD to do something about his gangrene. Another came in and demanded that his TD stop the clocks changing to summer time the next morning. Another wanted the TD to marry his daughter.
Yet another wanted his conjugal rights restored. One Dublin TD was asked to go down personally and clear the leaves in the local park. One really sad woman wanted a TD to do something about the fact that her daughter wasn’t invited to a birthday party.

But most of those who go to TDs are looking for help with housing, medical cards, social welfare allowances, student grants, planning permission – or like poor Mrs Murphy, help with getting a bed. Why do they do this? Surely they are either eligible or they’re not. The truth is that they’re doing this because TDs create the impression that they can intervene successfully for them. TDs create the need. Why else do you think TDs like Bertie Ahern or Willie O’Dea went knocking on people’s doors at weekends when the next election was years away? Why does Michael Ring attend more funerals than a guild of undertakers?

Now, this has consequences. As the political scientist Jane Suiter pointed out in an excellent speech to the Reform Alliance’s monster meeting in the RDS last month, if intervention by TDs is allowing people to jump the queue for allowances or services – or get planning permission when they shouldn’t – then it is corrupting a public system that should deal even-handedly with every citizen. And if intervention by TDs is necessary to make the system work fairly, then we should fix the system.

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