Breda O’Brien: My guide to choosing your TD

Look for someone who would defy the party whip because of personal conviction

The doughty Mattie McGrath: Voted against the Orwellian titled Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

The doughty Mattie McGrath: Voted against the Orwellian titled Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

 

There are a lot of people still scratching their heads about who to vote for in the upcoming election.

The old party loyalties have broken down to the extent that the voters who will expend all their preferences on a particular party or even combination of parties are now a very small group indeed.

In fact, anyone who still does so is probably a candidate, a friend or relative of a candidate or has been a party activist for so long their entire identity is now bound up with it.

Everyone else is likely to scatter their preferences all over the place, in that much-maligned practice of voting for personalities rather than policies. If you substitute the word character for personality, however, is voting that way such a bad idea?

Especially since no-one really believes the promises made in election manifestos, given the abundant evidence of recent times that promises are apparently made to be broken? Unfortunately, the word “character” in Ireland is often used as a synonym for an eccentric or, worse, a chancer.

The kind of character I am talking about, however, is both the accumulated habits of a lifetime and the ability to act well when put under pressure.

Don’t worry, I am not going to tell you for whom to vote, but the following questions might help you to clarify your thoughts.

Core values

Does the person have an ability to maintain core values even if it will really cost the candidate to do so?

Certain politicians have already demonstrated that quality, notably Lucinda Creighton when she voted against the somewhat Orwellianly titled of Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill. That’s not an endorsement of Renua, just a factual observation about Creighton.

There are few people in Irish politics who have put being true to their conscience above holding on to a junior ministry and personal advancement.

In fact, our system conspires against doing so, because of the stranglehold of the party whip system.

One TD memorably described the loss of the whip as like being thrown from a moving vehicle. Not only do you lose all connection to party resources but many of your party colleagues will ostracise you.

Despite threats and bullying, former Fine Gael TDs Terence Flanagan, Billy Timmins and Peter Mathews still voted to protect human life at all stages, even knowing that it would mean the loss of the Fine Gael whip.

After Micheál Martin was pushed into allowing a free vote, something he allowed only after realising that he would lose most of his parliamentary party, 13 Fianna Fáil TDs also voted against the highly flawed legislation, as did six Independent TDs, including Mattie McGrath.

It really is an important question as to whether someone has a bottom line greater than the retention or acquisition of power.

Leadership is not a matter of putting your finger up to gauge what way the wind is blowing, or slavishly following focus groups, or checking out what helped the Conservatives win the election in Britain.

Peddling a line

Focus groups provide security, because they take away the need to be courageous or different. But they are also ultimately counterproductive, because most people can identify the difference between someone acting with sincerity or just peddling the party line in search of advancement.

Of course, sincerity is not enough, but a person who is both competent and has convictions is infinitely preferable to someone who is competent but is willing to subcontract his or her conscience to the party machine.

Here’s another question. Listen to the candidate for whom you are considering voting and see is there any possibility that the person is willing to admit that we are a small country and extremely vulnerable to trends in the wider world?

And, God knows, the wider world is in chaos, given the migrant crisis driven by war and poverty, the downturn in the Chinese economy, low oil prices and the ever-increasing threat of climate change.

Is it really credible, given all these trends, that the good times will roll again if only we vote for a specific combination of parties?

There are huge challenges facing us at home, not least the fact that numbers of children at risk, in poverty or homeless have grown in the past five years.

Does your candidate get that? Do you get any sense that they understand that blighted young lives are a scandal and that their plight should take precedence over delivering tax cuts?

Does your candidate have a vision of Irish society that is fair and just, but also an awareness that sacrifices have to be made to make that vision a reality?

Does your candidate tell you the truth, rather than trying to scare you into voting a particular way or, worse, trying to buy your vote?

Of course, there is an alternative to asking difficult questions. We could just vote for the party that we feel will put more money in our pockets in the short term and then we truly will get the government that we deserve. Yet again.