Our politicians will have to get better at saying no

Standing up to vested interests necessary for political system to work

“Liam Doran, the canny boss of the nurses’ union, exploded onto the airwaves during the chocolates row.” Photograph: Eric Luke

“Liam Doran, the canny boss of the nurses’ union, exploded onto the airwaves during the chocolates row.” Photograph: Eric Luke

 

There’s an important maxim that is deeply interwoven into the fabric of Irish politics: whatever you do, don’t upset anyone.

The instinct of politicians is to go to any lengths of obfuscation, procrastination and often sheer irresponsibility rather than say no to someone, or tell a vocal interest group that they can’t have what they want or – horror of horrors – that while they have a good case, the public interest does not justify giving them what they are demanding.

Whatever you say, saying nothing.

Perhaps there are cultural roots to this. We are the country of ah sure, it’s grand. Directness, in the manner of our Teutonic friends, is not exactly a Gaelic trait.

I also think it has something to do with the connectedness of our political life and the relatively small number of votes required to be an electorally successful politician. Six or seven thousand first-preference votes will probably get you elected. Maureen O’Sullivan was elected in Dublin Central with fewer than 2,000 votes last year, albeit that was a bit of a freak – the result, not the candidate.

This means it is possible to meet most of your voters. As a TD, it is possible to do a lot of them favours – interventions with State bodies, and so on. To be honest, a lot of TDs, and their staff, spend an awful lot of their time doing this stuff. This is not a political system designed towards telling people hard truths, at any level.

Even in the depths of austerity, a time when the Government was faced with more hard choices than any in recent memory, whatever you think of the choices they made, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition would always assure people that even if they didn’t qualify for certain benefits, their position would be looked at “on a case by case basis”.

Bureaucratic intervention

This is simply a way of saying we won’t apply the rules. It also supplies politicians with unlimited amounts of the currency of bureaucratic intervention – a currency with which they can buy votes from those ready vendors of the franchise, the Irish voting public. We like it when politicians buy our votes: it means we get something in return. Rather than do the difficult bit of coming up with rules than are fair and affordable, we prefer to adopt arbitrary rules and then get around them.

It is certainly true that those of us who live relatively comfortably do not have to pester our TDs to intervene with an often impersonal and capricious bureaucracy on our behalf for help that we need. But that doesn’t disqualify the view that the State should have clear rules about entitlements that are reasonable, affordable and available. Nor the view that politicians should be doing something else with their time, at least most of the time.

This reluctance to disappoint anyone co-exists with a media discourse that has a microphone and a headline for every disaffected group, every well-organised lobby, every cause, deserving or not.

The solution is always the same: more public money for the group or cause making the representations. There was a commendable consistency on Friday when an RTÉ executive blamed the failure to qualify for the Eurovision final again on a lack of resources for RTÉ. At least he has been listening to his own station.

Ireland is not unusual in that special interests, vested interest or lobby groups, call them what you will, have significant political power. But it is, I think, unusual in the extent to which they dominate political debate.

Much of the debate about education policy, for instance, is dominated by the powerful teaching unions. Think about the power of the Irish Farmers’ Association. Look at the parade of lobbyists through the Dáil. Look how patients’ groups secured State financing of wildly expensive drugs for their treatment.

Healthcare

Why is it so hard to change the structures of the health system? As the Committee on the Future of Healthcare is finding out. Could it be anything to do with the power of the special interests in health, do you think, including the consultants – especially the consultants – the nurses, the staff and the private healthcare providers?

On Thursday, Dr Kevin Kelleher told an Oireachtas committee that there was a problem with nurses not getting the flu vaccine. Incentives had been shown to work, he said. Draws for iPads and iPods. Even chocolates.

Liam Doran, the capable and canny boss of the nurses’ union, exploded on to the airwaves. This was just typical of the way nurses were condescended to, he said. Was it any wonder there is a nursing shortage? The possible offence caused to the nurses became the story, rather than the fact too few nurses were being vaccinated against the flu. Is there not something a bit back to front here?

Has there ever been a problem in the health system for which the health unions have not diagnosed more money for their members as the cure?

Fair enough, that’s their job. But the rest of us – politicians, media, public – should stop pretending there isn’t at least some element of self-interest in all of this.

Largely for the above reasons, I think, Irish politicians have not been good at articulating and defining a public interest. In fact, they have been hopeless at it.

The most electorally successful politician of our time, Bertie Ahern, was a nonpareil in his skill at keeping enough people happy for most of the time. Events subsequently showed us this came at a steep cost of a ruined economy and all the suffering that went with that.

If we are ever to have good government as a consistent rather than occasional practice, we will need a better style of politics and leadership, of political and public discourse. And politicians will have to get better at saying no.

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