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Friday, August 19, 2005

The alternative AA

I have just finished reading an excellent book I picked up in Dublin. Called 'The Naked Politician' it is written by Irish journalist Katie Hannon and claims to lift 'the lid on a political system that rewards mediocrity and punishes idealism.' The blurb goes on to say that the book 'shows how elections are really won and lost. It exposes the power of the party machines and the fear and loathing in the constituency trenches. It is a book about pride and prejudice, about ego and ignominy, about the power, the glory and the grubby truth that lies behind it.' You get the idea.

In actual fact the book is a fascinating study of every aspect of the life of Irish politicians. It is based on a series of revealing, and sometimes anonymous, interviews with Senators, PDs, party officials and Councillors, and it trawls through some of the more interesting developments in Irish politics in the last 20 years from that perspective. Much of the inside story is very familiar. It is a fascinating read and I would recommend it to any political anorak or just to anybody who has an interest in finding out what it is like to be a full-time politican and what makes us tick.

Like all of us, Irish politicians spend a lot of time doing casework, and get their fair share of unusual or just downright strange referrals. In many ways the electoral system they fight under puts more emphasis on the pastoral side of their job. Every elected politician is competing within his or her constituency against other elected politicians of different parties and often of the same party. In these circumstances, and when elections can turn on two or three votes, a representative's personal support can be a deciding factor. It pays therefore to cultivate your constituents and to be on hand to help them in any matter whatsoever.

The book is full of stories of politicians and their wives attending every funeral they can find within their constituency, whether or not they knew the deceased or their family. Often they will be invited to the funeral by a friend of the family keen to impress that he or she has some influence and can get the TD to attend.

The current Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, consistently returns one of the highest first preference votes in the country. As the book says 'No matter how pressing the affairs of the nation, no matter how unreliable the Government jet, Bertie will always try to fix his schedule so that he is back in Dublin every Sunday night to meet the lads for a pint in one of his few favoured locals in Drumacondra.'

Mr. Ahern also spends as much time as he can speaking to his constituents on their own doorsteps as this story illustrates: 'In November 2003 Irish Times columnist Roisin Ingle wrote hilariously of her shock at discovering the Taoiseach on her doorstep when she answered her doorbell one Saturday morning. We must surely live in one of the only modern democracies where the Prime Minister makes unsolicited house calls at the weekend.' Tony Blair has a lot to live up to.

My favourite casework story in the book is this:

'One secretary to a high-profile politician recalls taking a call at 5pm one evening just a week before Christmas from a woman who was in some distress. The caller explained that she was ringing from the hard-shoulder of the Naas dual-carriageway. Her car had broken down and she wasn't an AA member. She was in a pickle. So she rang Leinster House, asked for the office of a TD she thought looked kind on TV, and explained her predicament. His secretary was non-plussed. What did the caller think the TD could do for her? The caller said she thought he would help her because she liked the cut of his jib on the news. She appeared to want the TD to drive out to the Naas dual-carriageway to tow her home. The secretary remembers: "She was gobsmacked when I said no."'

I cannot say that I have had a request like that, yet!
Heaven save us from the single transferable vote !!!

Sounds like an interesting book actually. I might order it from Amazon.

I guess whether you consider this to be the kind of thing our pols should be spending such disproportionate (as I gather, from your review, the book suggests) time on largely depends on your attitude to casework. There was an interesting debate on this last year following an article in Progress (New Labour equivalent of 'Liberator') http://www.w4mp.org/html/eni/2004q123/040609_casework.asp
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