Arts community not as politically active as it should be, says Abbey director

Government’s failure to establish independent electoral commission ‘an absolute disgrace’, claims Senator Fiach Mac Conghail

Abbey director Fiach Mac Conghail was appointed to the Seanad in 2011 by Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photograph: Alan Betson

Abbey director Fiach Mac Conghail was appointed to the Seanad in 2011 by Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photograph: Alan Betson


Ireland’s arts community is not as politically active as it should be, according to Independent Senator and Director of the Abbey Theatre, Fiach Mac Conghail.

He was nonetheless encouraged by the involvement of artists in the marriage equality campaign and considered the “next challenge” is to repeal the anti-abortion amendment. The government, he also believed, is “belatedly waking up to the need to directly engage with citizens”.

Addressing a conference in Dublin of the Political Studies Association of Ireland, Mr Mac Conghail said the government’s failure to establish an independent electoral commission is “an absolute disgrace”.

Ireland is among a small minority of countries where elections continue to be managed by government. An independent Electoral Commission was promised in the coalition’s programme for government but Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly has said, while the government is committed to establishing a commission, it could not do so before the 2016 general election.

The failure to establish a commission to date is “a great personal disappointment”, Mr Mac Conghail, appointed by the Taoiseach to the Seanad in 2011, said.

In an address on the importance for society of teaching and learning politics, Mr MacConghail said he perceived his role as trying to expose artists and audiences to politics via theatre. He hoped to encourage more engagement of the local community with theatre through initiatives such as a course of citizenship and theatre with the local Larkin Community College.

Noel Whelan, political analyst and barrister, said political science and the teaching of it, plus the participation of political scientists in the political conversation, is important for several reasons. These included the shaping of political practitioners and “shaping forces”, including the media, who decide what those practitioners can do.

The political conversation has been “hollowed out” due to factors including “lack of corporate memory” among those covering politics, he said. With some exceptions, the perspectives in the modern commentary on politics are distorted because they do not have an historical, or sufficiently comparative, context, he said.

About half of the Irish electorate are saying they don’t want to vote for Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or Labour and the same disenchantment and anger evident in UK and US politics is happening here, he said.

The mobile phone and social media will “transform” politics but, if the political conversation is to improve, there must be a greater depth to it and the media should drop its “Punch and Judy approach” and convey in depth information. Political science has a “key role” to play in that regard.

Michelle O’Donnell Keating, Co-Founder of Women for Election, said it was more important than ever for women to study and pursue politics from an early stage and for women community activists to get involved in politics. Noting the female makeup of the Dail and local councils is 16 and 21 per cent respectively, she said “mirroring” is important as “you cannot be what you cannot see”.

Lorraine McIlrath, Community Knowledge Initiative Co-ordinator at NUI Galway, said her concern is about embedding an ethos of civic engagement and setting up pathways to connect educational institutions with the wider community. The teaching of politics and civic engagement needs to transcend all educational spheres but there is “a long way to go to shake up the system”, she said.