Anyone who has ever shadowed a senior politician on a canvass – particularly among the people Paul Murphy describes as “ordinary” – must have had a quiet guffaw last week when Murphy declared that “people are no longer afraid of the Government”.
A lot of things might be said about the Irish voter but “afraid” is not one of them.
I recall a stout 50-something male ordering a senior government figure inside and roaring over a blaring television – “ye’ll get a number 12 if ye mow the lawn”. And the elderly woman, leaning against the door jamb of her warm, sheltered-housing unit, looking a future minister up and down very slowly before hissing: “Youse are all the same. Every wan o’ yiz. A bunch o’ gangsters”.
And the gentleman who poked another candidate repeatedly in the chest, directing him to “get them f---kin’ windows fixed”. Or the band of fit locals demanding that an opposition frontbencher remove a small pile of rubble from the road.
Politicians routinely humiliate themselves in the perpetual quest to retain the seat. Famously, back in May 2007, while the six o’clock news was showing footage of the then taoiseach,
, addressing both British Houses of Parliament, his Dublin North Central constituents were opening their doors to find him already back on the canvass. Where else but Ireland would the prime minister pop up on random thresholds on such a day ?
The fear doesn't end with elections. In an interview two years ago, John Lyons, a young Labour TD from Ballymun described the "stomach-turning" feeling of clicking on Facebook where "a common thread would have been, 'Yiz are a pack of liars'. . . 'You have no shame.' It mightn't sound that bad, but when they're coming at you from all directions there's no escape.
“It’s very difficult to go out in your own community now and actually be seen as a human being. I’m very shocked by that... There were a few moments that were too tough, when you went home and thought, this isn’t worth it.”
With the exception of the can-do-no-wrong Independents of left and right, no politician has escaped the lash of an angry, betrayed electorate.
But is the same electorate entirely flawless ? What if it hadn’t done a handbrake turn a week before the 2007 election? What if it hadn’t ignored the wall-to-wall tribunal revelations and handed Bertie Ahern an unprecedented third term, leading to the Cowen succession ?
Who now remembers that the most feared and powerful voter in that election was Breakfast Roll Man? It was hardly a coincidence that when Bertie Ahern was being feted in the Palace of Westminster about a week beforehand, Seán Dunne and his wife Gayle were conspicuous among his privileged handful of guests, signalling business as usual.
It was Breakfast Roll Man who won that election for Bertie. "The reason is very clear," wrote David McWilliams a few days later. "Breakfast Roll Man does not do ideology. He does pragmatism. He votes for whoever he believes will keep the show on the road and Bertie is this man at the moment… He will drop Fianna Fáil as soon as the fall in the price of houses becomes more apparent. This allows him to ignore the realities of today. Bertie is the custodian of the future. He is the dream keeper".
The people voted to retain the dream-keeper because under Ahern, argued McWilliams, “a new social contract had evolved between the State and the citizen, based entirely on the continuing rise in the price of houses. In the past, people voted for the party they believed could deliver on whatever it was those individuals wanted, whether it was health, education or taxes. Now that social contract has been discarded and Breakfast Roll Man votes for the party he believes will make him wealthy”.
In just a few months, Breakfast Roll Man would begin to morph into the “lost generation”.
So what does it mean now that “people are no longer afraid of the government”? Where do they turn? Does it mean that no single-interest merchants, no snake-oil salesmen of the right or left, no new variants of the dream-keeper will ever again be allowed to hold sway over this electorate?
The next phase will be revealing. Who wouldn’t be delighted to see the despised universal social charge scrapped and the money restored to struggling households?
But imagine if the first post-crash, 150,000-citizen march had been about something other than cash? Imagine if it had erupted over an outrage like the hellish A&E department where a post-surgery cancer patient with an infected wound is left sitting on a chair for 11 hours? Or the family unable to access professional help for a mentally-disturbed child? Or a mother and children left to live in a car?
If these marches are not just about recovering cash, but about recovering our national pride and sense of justice, the next question is crucial. To whom do we entrust this precious, fragile new politics of ours?