Kathy Sheridan: Time for the honest county councillors to light a fire
The sound of that cute hoor, country accent asking “What’s in it for me?” was like a physical blow to the heart.
We took the twisting, single-lane road through the Conor Pass out of Dingle last weekend. In the pale December light as the storm played itself out, the mountains’ soaring, other-worldly beauty radiated an almost heartbreaking quality. Last weekend, the sacrifices made by generation after generation to guard and nurture this remote place were never more apparent.
Dingle’s Other Voices festival had a new strand this year, Ireland’s Edge, designed to tease out the ideas and conversations that arise where Irish people are gathered. It was attended by Jimmy Deenihan and a slew of high-level policy-makers, public servants and big employers such as Eamon Sinnott of Intel. During it, Dr Piaras Mac Éinrí cited his own 2013 study showing that 15 per cent of urban families had seen a member emigrate in the last wave. That’s around one family in seven. The figure for rural families was a staggering one in four.
Imagine the sense of betrayal among many of those families this week to see those elected to help their communities betray them so lightly. Imagine the despair of committed citizens like Philip King, the visionary behind Other Voices, who struggle week in week out to keep their places alive. King has created a festival that routinely attracts the coolest of international musicians to that stormy peninsula in December, when the planes often bounce off the Farranfore landing strip before diverting to Cork. This year, many pale and rattled hipster musicians arrived by road from Cork after flying – knowingly – into a red weather alert. They did it because they love it, because charming zealots like King provide a beacon of the possible.
All over rural Ireland, people like him are pouring their time, imagination, dreams and hard labour into enterprises which seem hopeless. Yet the good ones battle on. We know them. They will also be on the clean-up teams in the floods, the ones out picking up litter in the late evening and painting the railings; the ones battling through the storms to meetings to make plans for derelict buildings and bingo nights and parish teams. Their only reward is to see their own place survive and grow and maybe in some happy future time, bring their children back to live fulfilling, prosperous lives. The irony this week is that many of those generous activists will be councillors.
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Perhaps it was the many examples of that generous, battling, striving spirit in Dingle and the contrast with the grasping men on RTÉ Investigates that made the latter almost physically upsetting.
The sound of that cute hoor, country accent asking, “What’s in it for me?” was like a physical blow to the heart. Didn’t you know the whole lot of them were corrupt? snorted a Dublin friend. Sheila Reilly, the editor of the Longford Leader, tweeted: “I would have hoped that carry-on was all behind us. Obviously not.” Later she told me she “felt utterly naive”. But it was worse than that.
She began to talk about all the decent councillors well known to her, people who battle away in her long-neglected county, “who are in it for all the right reasons and who work very, very hard – but who are all tainted now”. You hope it’s just the few, she said. Either way, catastrophic damage has been done. “With this, you are wiping away the whole democracy our little county is working for. There is no faith in this structure anymore”, she said.
This is the extraordinary power wielded by elected local politicians. Their power over land use and public procurement contracts is enormous, but it is much more than that. They are our most immediate experience of democracy in action, “the bread and butter of local representation”, as Cllr Hugh McElvaney described himself so modestly, while demanding that his mouth be stuffed with sterling.
On Claire Byrne Live, aired immediately afterwards, one young FF councillor in the audience responded to a question with the phrase, “as a young representative”, as if that somehow conferred unquestionable purity. But one of the investigation’s three “stars”, John O’Donnell from Donegal, is only 34. He is also an Independent. Last May, he sent a tweet to the Vincent Browne show: “The rich get richer and the poor just seem to get poorer [-]rotten to the core.” Youth is no guarantee of a new republic. Neither is non-party or new-party status. Neither, obviously, are the glib slogans that spring so easily to the lips of the terminally cynical and the lazy.
The Claire Byrne programme’s pollsters asked, “Do you trust our TDs and councillors?” Just 22 per cent said ‘Yes’. That, you might think, should light a fire under every one of our many honest, hard-working politicians. But those figures are nothing new. In fact, that 22 per cent is probably better than expected. Our politicians have learned to accept this ridiculous dichotomy of being abjured as a tribe while being well liked on the ground.
Well, your time has come, honest politicians of Ireland. I, for one, believe you are many. This is your time. Light the fire. Make history.