The decision that I made on contesting this general election
OPINION:This columnist will not be seen on the hustings and to ask why not is entirely legitimate
JUST AFTER new year, I was sitting outside the dressing room in Marks Spencer in Dublin while my son was trying on some clothes from the sale. It is not a conspicuous spot. Yet, over the course of a few minutes, three different people – nice, sensible people at that – approached me, asked me to run for the Dáil and promised me their support.
This has not been an uncommon experience for me or for others in recent months: David McWilliams has also been a focus of the same yearning for someone to initiate change. And while it is very flattering, I know it has nothing much to do with me. There is a very deep hunger for someone (almost anyone) from outside the existing political culture to step into the arena and champion a process of radical change. And though Mary O’Rourke, on Tuesday night in the Dáil, rightly mocked the notion of “wonderful gurus standing in what one could describe as posh areas”, I know from my own experiences that the desire to deliver a huge shock to the entire existing system is not confined to leafy Dublin suburbs.
O’Rourke mentioned both our names in that speech on Tuesday, with the elegant taunt that “we have not seen a mass movement. I do not see Fintan O’Toole or David McWilliams on the hustings.”
The implied question – why not? – is entirely legitimate. I have written two books, identifying our political culture as the ultimate source of our economic catastrophe and putting forward very specific proposals for radical changes to our institutions, values and political priorities. I have addressed well-attended gatherings around the country and stood on public platforms. I have told other people that they need to engage as citizens in an urgent process of taking back their democracy and giving it real meaning. My answers to the charge of hypocrisy – of urging others to do what I am not prepared to do myself – have been less and less convincing, even to myself.
Together with McWilliams and others, I knew I had to move beyond the sense that “somebody somewhere should do something”. I decided in the last few weeks that I was prepared to stand for the Dáil – not because I wanted to but because I felt morally obliged to do so. The questions that followed from this decision were “how?” And “why?”
The “how” is a lot less simple than putting our names on the ballot paper. For me, there were two obvious options. I could stand for a political party. But this is an ethical minefield for a professional journalist. Even to enter into serious discussions with a party is to compromise to some degree the objectivity that an independent commentator on public affairs has to maintain.
And besides, my candidature would be a decidedly mixed blessing for any party. I have criticised every major party at some point, and it’s all on the record. There is a very long paper trail of specific opinions that would contradict pretty much every party’s official policies. What politician would want to spend time during a campaign explaining why my views on, for example, the need for a property tax, have nothing to do with them?
This leaves the other option – standing as an Independent. I am certainly vain enough to believe that, with a well-run campaign and in the context of so much public despair, I would have a decent chance of winning a seat in one of those infamously leafy suburbs.
But to do what exactly? There are very good and effective Independent candidates who have spent years working on the ground in their own communities. I would not be one of them. And while I greatly admire another journalist, author and veteran of the Four Angry Men show, Shane Ross, for taking the plunge, Shane has been a serving politician for many years. I, on the other hand, have no personal interest in making a life in politics. I’m willing to spend the next five years trying to change the system from within. But, for all my vanity, I’m not sufficiently deluded to believe that my mere presence in the Dáil would make any difference to anything. Bluntly, a newspaper columnist has at least as much influence as an isolated backbench TD.
Having dismissed the two obvious options, McWilliams, myself and others were left with one big, bold idea, an unusual notion for unusual times. What if it were possible to stand, in every single constituency, someone not currently involved in party politics, but with a track record of civic achievement in business, in the arts, in community and voluntary activity, in sport, in single-issue campaigns? What if they could be united on a small core of big questions, while retaining their independence, so they could bring some free thought to the Dáil?
If this is the “how?”, what is the “why?” What are those big issues around which this network of independents could cohere? I think they are obvious enough.
My educated guess is that at least half of the Irish electorate is united on three things. The first is that the bank bailout and its consequences in vicious austerity and the loss of sovereignty are immoral, unsustainable and both socially and economically disastrous. An economy of 1.8 million workers simply cannot pay off these debts. We need, once and for all, a structured, negotiated default.
This is not an especially radical view – more and more international economic commentators and players in the financial markets agree with it and this week even the IMF itself came close to saying as much. Yet, within current party politics, this argument is being left to Sinn Féin and the United Left.
Secondly, there is a huge consensus on the need for a virtual refounding of the State in political and institutional terms. People know that our current system is not just dysfunctional but toxic – it can’t provide the one thing that democracy demands: accountability at every level.
And thirdly, people are sickened by the amorality of so many aspects of our public life, particularly those where politics and business overlap. Cronyism and impunity are the twin pillars of an edifice that has to be demolished.
Almost as soon as we began to discuss with others these two large propositions – a genuine national platform of respected people united on these three issues – there was widespread agreement on the nature of both the opportunity and the challenge. The opportunity is that very large numbers of people, young and old, female and male, rural and urban, are hungry for something like this to happen. The challenge is that the project would have to have a large scale in order to be meaningful. To crystallise the desire for change, it would have to have a realistic chance of getting at least 20 people elected. Anything less would be a protest, a satisfying gesture. It would not be a serious answer to the immensely serious question of the shrinking of our democracy.
Two things were completely clear to everyone who was interested in this project. One was that we had a moral duty to try to do it. The other was that we had an even more emphatic duty not to screw it up. A national crisis is not a time for enthusiastic amateurism. An inadequate effort wouldn’t be a noble failure. It would be worse than doing nothing at all because it would raise hopes and then dash them. The last thing Irish democracy needs right now is another reason for despair. If the point of a campaign was to remind people that they do have power, it would be unforgivable to leave them feeling even more powerless.
The most exciting discovery in the process of trying to make this intervention is also the most bitter: that it could be done. There are brilliant, creative and generous people who are prepared to work themselves to the bone to make it happen. There are also very brave people who are prepared to risk their jobs and their reputations to stand for election in this context – people with a lot to lose.
The enemy, we discovered, is the one that nothing human can ever defeat: time. All of the discussions on the project were predicated on an election in late March. The descent into political chaos in the last fortnight threw out of kilter all of the most basic calculations.
Oddly, it would still probably have been possible to raise enough start-up funds to get an internet fundraising campaign under way. And the basic problems of logistics and organisation could have been solved. The big effect of the telescoping of the timescale was on the prospective candidates. For many of them, courageous and committed as they were, the prospect of dealing with employment and family issues in such a rush and then facing into something they had never done before was just too much to face. And as some people reluctantly decided to withdraw, the doubts of others grew.
There came a point in mid-week when the risk of going off half-cocked seemed to outweigh the hope of making a difference. The cold, rational calculation had to be made: will this thing make for a more meaningful election or will it merely create an expectation that could not be fulfilled? There is a chance in the current climate that even if people put their names on the ballot paper and did little else, they would get a lot of votes. But there’s a bigger chance that Mary O’Rourke’s prediction of a few would-be gurus in posh areas would be the result.
It is very hard to accept that you’ve failed to do what so many people expect of you. I know I will be accused of chickening out, of climbing up the diving board only to scurry back down the ladder. But this isn’t a time for glorious gestures. It is a moment of deep seriousness in our national life. I was willing to do something of commensurate seriousness. I’m not ashamed of having tried but I would be ashamed of having done it badly. I’m sure that the decision not to lead people on with false hopes is the right one and I have no intention of revisiting that decision.
On a personal level, it is a relief to return to the job I’m best fitted for. If nothing else, to misquote Karl Marx, I’ve been reminded that analysing the world is a lot easier than changing it.
Fintan O’Toole’s column appears on these pages on Tuesdays