In the political world, there’s a thin line between satire and reality. The stakes are high, the players are harried, and the happenings can quickly turn to the absurd. So, when a memo circulated Leinster House last week advising TDs to be “streetwise” and wear “comfortable shoes” to “move quickly” if needed, I know I can’t be the only one who found it darkly comic.
Of course, there’s nothing funny about anyone feeling threatened and having to take safety measures. Irish politicians have spoken about ensuring they’re not alone when they conduct clinics and taking extra care when knocking on doors or meeting somebody they don’t know. It can’t be far from their minds that they’re constant moving targets, if only for verbal abuse or online harassment.
This reminder that they may also face physical danger, and should avoid being invited into a constituent’s kitchen, as it could provide “many possibilities when it comes to dangerous weapons that are best avoided”, is fairly bleak.
But the suggestion of the comfortable shoes pushed the whole thing squarely into The Thick of It territory.
There’s a scene in Armando Iannucci’s satire of the British government where Malcolm Tucker, the acid-tongued strategist, spies a glistening pair of trainers on the feet of the director of communications, Terri Coverley. “You’re supposed to be a civil servant, not a f**king playgroup assistant,” he growls at her. Terri is one of those characters who is dazzlingly incompetent, yet she regularly, and worryingly, could be the smartest person in the room.
Politicians fall into two camps when it comes to how they dress: the ones who don’t want to draw any attention to their wardrobe and the ones who want to make a statement with their style
Tucker’s right, though. Her trainers look ridiculous with her daily officewear of a midi skirt, a lightly opaque tight and a blazer that she definitely bought after getting her colours done in a department store. Maybe that’s why the idea of the comfortable getaway shoes is so ridiculous. It conjures up such a clear image of a gleaming pair of Reeboks set against the muted tones of a typical politician’s wardrobe. It screams American tourist barrelling towards the Book of Kells or Terri Coverley wearing her trainers to work because she’s trying to get her steps in.
When my writing partner Sarah Breen and I were imagining the character of the Complete Aisling into existence one of her core principles was bringing her low-heeled court shoes to work in a battered Brown Thomas bag while the Asics on her feet carried her comfortably and swiftly towards her office. Once there she would fire the runners into the bag, fire the bag under the desk, slip into the shoes, and praise herself for clocking up another 4,000 steps on the Fitbit. Aisling would always have safety on her mind too. Her mother put a personal alarm in her stocking for Christmas last year, and Aisling regularly has her hand on it while zipping around after dark.
Politicians fall into two camps when it comes to how they dress: the ones who don’t want to draw any attention to their wardrobe, so go with the status quo and keep it safe, and the ones who want to make a statement with their style, communicating personality, class or shared cultural and political touchstones to the public.
Some of those statements have become trademarks – the hats, the hair, Leo Varadkar’s extensive collection of wraparound sunglasses that, God forgive me, I wish he’d bin. Varadkar was also a key player in the international game of Novelty-Sock Off that hit the political arena a few years ago. Justin Trudeau is of course the reigning champion. Whatever a politician’s style, it’s usually carefully chosen and forms part of their public persona. Asking that politicians make changes to the way they dress to ensure their own safety feels beyond the scope of their responsibility. It’s not a million miles away from “don’t go out after dark in short skirts”.
If a shadowy figure approaches a TD with a bottle of who knows what in their hand, are we to criticise the politician for not bolting away in a pair of Skechers? If it was an episode of The Thick of It, it might be called “But What Was He Wearing?” and there would be a three-hour conference call about whether to use “move quickly” or “run”. Malcolm Tucker would be in the corner, chewing off his own arm, and Terri would be late because she was taking the stairs, in her runners.