Just what are the TDs for exactly?

 

As an Independent TD in the 1960s and 1970s, my father briefly held the casting vote in the Dβil. Lately, someone wondered what he might be doing now were he still in politics: "Demanding another abortion referendum. . .?"

I'm guessing but I think that far from holding a government to ransom over something like abortion, he would be running 100 miles from it. Not out of fear of his constituents but, ironically, because he knew them too well.

He needed no polls or focus groups to tell him what they were thinking. He was never out of their sight. They thronged our house at all hours. The phones never stopped. If the "boss himself" wasn't home, they waited.

They ranged from your average medical card/housing grant/widows' pension applicant to desperate hit-and-run drivers to suddenly-humbled bankrupts on the run (who tended to arrive, entire families in tow, at dead of night), to deserted wives and mothers of 10, for whom my father shopped for emergency groceries, funded out of his own - and on one occasion a county secretary's - pocket, and dropped anonymously on the doorstep.

Because he knew them so well, he saw there were no saints, and anyway he was no saint himself. He knew of one case where a group of disparate neighbours in a rural community funded an English abortion for one deeply tragic woman. When he spoke about it nearly 30 years on, his tone was reflective; there would never be any public bluster about faith or morals.

At a time when the concept of rights was understood dimly if at all, he used his clout to put the skids under bureaucrats, hurrying up grants, pushing for decent housing, making people aware of their entitlements, putting in a word with local employers, quietly but firmly pushing for change.

He could have lined his pockets with the money being discussed around Dublin Castle, but he didn't as far as we know. (Or if he did, he's managed to hide it very well.)

And his constituents never forgot. They supported him royally until he stepped down at a time of his choosing.

And although he was 20 years retired when he died last year, they came out again in their thousands, from every class, creed and generation, to honour his life, led by the President's aide de camp, three former Taoisigh, a few Government Ministers and representatives of every party.

He's on my mind now, not just because this is a time for remembering but because he and his ilk, past and present, came to mind when I read Terry Prone's piece on Friday about voter apathy. How would a man like Joe Sheridan fare in today's political three-ring circus? Would he have featured in yesterday's newspaper "honours lists" and if so, under what heading? Slieveen of the Year? Gobshite of the Year? The Constantly Whingeing TD Award? The Most Boring by a Mile TD Award ?

What are TDs for? What does this newly-prosperous, educated nation want from them now?

Are they mere entertainment fodder, to be sneered at and abused, and if so, whose fault is it?

Yesterday's lead story in Ireland's biggest-selling Sunday was that the Tanaiste was at the centre of a "church row" over the church blessing on her wedding. But the report featured no comment or complaint from either church or happy couple on the purely private ceremony, and Cardinal Connell, crucially, hadn't been called upon to perform it. So who was fomenting the row ?

On the other hand, we know that the political parties are battling hard to have Charlie Bird split in three come election time, because they reckon he packs more excitement into his reports. What is this if not some deeply pathetic, advance admission that the passionate, hoarse, rousing engagement we should expect from our leaders will have to come from Charlie instead ?

And what about us, the voters, 35 per cent of whom couldn't be bothered to vote in the last election? It always tickles me to be told solemnly that the reason for this is that we've lost respect for politicians (and polls confirm that two-thirds of us believe this).

So can anyone explain why, at the height of the Haughey/Burke tribunal revelations, Fianna Fβil's support shot up by six points and Bertie Ahern's rating as Taoiseach was the highest ever recorded?

The fact is that no survey has pinned down the people who never intended to vote in 1997, never mind why. When more than 40 per cent of the British electorate stayed away last June, we heard variously that it was because direct action was best, that the main parties were "cardboard cut-outs", that the first-past-the-post" system was tedious. All this in the land that gave us theatre of Aristotlean proportions only four years before, when Michael Portillo was ousted and a new era ushered in.

Enough of the excuses. Maybe Terry Prone is right, and voting should be made compulsory. A solution for the conscientious abstainer would be a box on the ballot paper saying "None of the above" (producing a more stinging smack on the nose for the pols than merely staying away).

But what to do with the non-compliant hard chaws - the incorrigibly lazy, the smug contented, the middle-aged brats who will refuse to vote because Nanny State now insists, the kind who in other fora are never done reminding the little people that they have responsibilities as well as rights ?

Do we want to make martyrs of them as they strut into Mountjoy by the front gate? I don't think so. So fines and jail are out. The trick is to find a creatively wounding sanction. Any suggestions?

e-mail: kathysheridan@ireland.com