Hysterical attitudes reflect unresolved relationship with power
OPINION:A mix of obsequiousness and envy characterises much popular reaction to Irish politicians
WHEN MY husband Eamon Ryan became minister for communications, energy and natural resources in 2007, my feelings were mixed. Thrilled for the planet and particularly this part of it. Not so thrilled for the family.
At that time we already had four young children, one with special needs, and we had just been through a gruelling campaign. Now my husband was disappearing for what we thought might be five years. My focus became the children. Though of course I did not face the challenges, either emotional or financial, of a single parent, I knew I would have to function as both parents for a time.
For that reason, I never saw myself muscling in on formal events as my husband’s escort. But just after his appointment, my mind still racing at the extent of the challenge ahead, I was persuaded to go to one.
The husband chatted to my husband, while the wife zoned in on me. “You must be thrilled,” she said, nostrils flared and pupils dilated. “You have a car! And you’ll be going to lots of events like this!”
I said I didn’t think I would because the kids needed me. I might have added that I didn’t want to have any more conversations like the one I was having. “Oh,” she said, “You’ll have to go to let the women know you’re there. People are attracted to power.”
I thought about that conversation often in the years that followed, and about Irish people’s particular relationship with power. It is well established that we tend to knock people who have power. It means politicians are immediately knocked once they have enough power to effect change, often by the very people who democratically elected them. We act as if we were still ruled by a foreign monarch, conveniently forgetting our own part in the electoral process.
One of my favourite canvassing stories from the election was that of the Green canvasser who faced a furious voter on a doorstep who said: “You put Fianna Fáil back in power!” The canvasser countered with the observation that the Greens were, in fact, surplus to requirements at the time of the formation of the last Dáil, and Fianna Fáil were going back with them or without them.
“Do you want to know who really put Fianna Fáil back in power? You did!” continued the canvasser. And yes, the whole family accepted that they had.
The other face of our relationship with power is obsequiousness. There were times during my husband’s term in office when I was stunned at the bowing and scraping and endless use of the title “Minister”. This extended to “Pass the salt, Minister” at a private dinner. I found myself wondering how the diner would ask for the salt if he were eating with my husband after he lost power – “Pass the salt, ex-Minister” or just “Gimme!”
We forget high office is a temporary responsibility and honour on which we have agreed by democratic means, and is not a genetic condition. We still haven’t come to terms with living in a republic. This unresolved relationship with power is summed up in our hysterical reaction to the State cars. When my husband cycled, it ran in the newspapers. But the cars symbolise for people their hatred of people who have power.
The cars have been used to express power, like coaches and carriages were. Now we are tat he stage where it is seen as a media truism that politicians should “get the bus to work”, as I heard on RTÉ Radio One’s Liveline, or “get a taxi”, as I heard on Drivetime.
No sane person could argue against car pooling, cheaper cars, older cars, more energy-efficient cars and indeed, no cars at all when walking, cycling or public transport will do. But the fact is that Ministers often need State transport. They do not go “to work”. There are days when they are picked up at 7am and go from meeting to engagement all day long until midnight. They have to work all the time when travelling.
It is often appropriate for them to have the support of experienced armed gardaí because democracies must often offer protection to senior office-holders. Confidential phone conversations need to remain that way; State documents must not fall into wrong hands.
Every experienced politician knows all this, but politicians rarely defend themselves. I have been amazed as outrageous lies about politicians were peddled in the media, which would result in corrections and libel actions for anyone else. But there is an unwritten rule that you can say anything about a politician.
As I watched in disbelief when a media mob pursued the last government, I got some clarification from a young man who worked in my husband’s office. He explained that in most countries, some of the media are for the government and some against, but in Ireland the entire media was “anti-incumbent” – ie, they hate you if you have power.
It might be time to get over this. I turned on Joe Duffy’s Livelinethe day the new Dáil was formed, happy in the knowledge our family would not feature. The callers were already ringing Joe to vent their outrage at the new crowd: for speaking Irish. For wearing suits. For not wearing suits.
VICTORIA WHITEis a freelance journalist.
Eamon Ryan was formerly minister for communications, energy and natural resources. He lost his Dáil seat in Dublin South in the general election.