Bobby McDonagh: Zappone affair shows there is no such thing as perfection in politics

The longer any government is in power, the more prone it is to making mistakes

Patrick Pearse, in his poem The Fool, spoke of giving life to a dream, He recognised, however, that his vision would have to find its place “in the world of time and space among the bulks of actual things”. That insight is still relevant to the very different circumstances of Irish politics today.

The implementation of any political vision, except in the case of the most extreme ideologies, is constrained by the mundane, awkward but unavoidable realities of life – including competing interests, the wider world, respect for the law, public opinion, finite resources and the inevitability of human imperfection. Former New York governor Mario Cuomo once remarked that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. It could similarly be argued that, whereas political campaigning involves the promotion of visions, the delivery of political promises can only take place “among the bulks of actual things”.

One of the hallmarks of the recent rise of populism has been dismissal of the realities of political life, including the imperfection that lies at the heart of all human endeavour.

Trump, for example, sold the false prospectus that there were simple, perfect answers to complicated intractable problems and that the US’s so-called greatness could be achieved without regard to the realities of a flawed society or a complex world. Brexit was likewise based on a rejection of the imperfection of 21st-century reality, as represented by the EU, in which complexity is unavoidable, compromise inevitable and outcomes less than ideal. Having your cake and eating it is certainly a more attractive prospect but, as the UK is increasingly finding out, an illusory one.


Impossible perfection

We can be reasonably proud that Irish politics have so far been relatively unaffected by the recent populism – with its inevitable xenophobic component – that we have witnessed in the US and UK, as well as in Hungary and Poland. We do, however, need to remind ourselves here from time to time that there is no such thing as perfection in politics; that mistakes will be made by every government, as indeed mistakes are made by every human organisation and construct. Politicians, in all parties, may be measured against a standard of perfection but it is unrealistic to judge them by it.

The Government’s handling of Covid, for example, was imperfect. Mistakes were made. Everyone has the right, even the duty, to criticise aspects of the Government’s performance, albeit sometimes from opposite points of view. However, seen against the background of the impressive overall handing of the vastly complex Covid challenge, the mistakes were made, for the most part, not because Ministers were stupid but because they were human. No government anywhere can claim to have had an error-free pandemic. If a different government had been in power here during the pandemic, it is certain that it would have made mistakes, albeit different ones.

This is not to argue against vibrant public debate or to downplay the important contribution that criticism of government makes to our democracy. It is merely a gentle reminder that there is no such thing as perfection in politics, in any country or under any government.

The process surrounding the nomination of Katherine Zappone to a UN special envoy role involved errors of judgment. Nobody questions that mistakes were made, that the saga developed into a mess or that apologies were in order.

Held to account

Opposition parties have rightly carried out their role of holding Ministers to account on the issue. The Irish media, for their part, have asked pertinent questions and sought answers to them. The Government has accepted responsibility for its handling of the issue and been made to eat an appropriately large slice of humble pie. The longer any Government is in power, the more it can be prone to such mistakes. However, what is as inevitable as night follows day is that every government will make mistakes and end up doing things that others will consider foolish or improper.

This is not to justify errors of political judgment or suggest that those who make mistakes should be immune from strong and sustained criticism when appropriate. Rather it is to point out that, when it comes to expressing our political preferences at elections, the populist promise of perfection is not on the ballot paper. We have a choice between different visions of our society and how we should address the issues we face as a country. We can cast our votes for a variety of parties and politicians who have the courage and commitment to dedicate themselves to the noble vocation of politics. But, as we do so, we should recall that, “among the bulks of actual things”, there is no perfection. One of the biggest mistakes we could make is to believe that we do not all make mistakes.

Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Rome and Brussels