I have very vivid memories of sitting watching the TV screen as a tearful Gerry Collins pleaded, ‘Don’t do it Albert.’ He talked of how it would ‘burst’ the party and wreck the government. To watch it was a bit surreal wondering how Collins ever thought this was a good idea. It was, however, indicative of an attitude in politics, an attitude that has existed for far too long. This attitude hides behind words such as ‘stability’ and ‘certainty’ but it is about something very different.
Over the years the primary law has become the preservation of government. Elections are to be viewed with suspicion, as a bad thing, while long term governments are to be seen as successful. I hear this mantra repeated time and time again in Leinster house whenever a crisis approaches: ‘It would damage the government.’
This attitude is born out of the plethora of career politicians. Those who cannot see a life for themselves outside of the Dáil. Getting there has been their over-riding ambition and once they find themselves in government it’s a game where you keep the other guy out and you do whatever necessary to preserve your term. Success is to last and continue your career. The idea of right and wrong is often forgotten. Too many politicians are able to nod agreement with you in private and then add ‘but sure if I did that I would never be elected’ or ‘If I tried that I would end up resigning or collapse the government.’
Ireland needs men and women who take decisions not because they are popular, not because they seem a good compromise, not because someone told them to, but because they actually believe it is the right thing to do. The consequences should not matter if you are an individual of conviction. Yes you may have to walk away, yes it may cost you a career but isn’t that what leadership is about? What good is any politician who says one thing but does another and is never true to what they believe?
Yesterday in Dáil Eireann we witnessed this again. Roisin Shortall clearly has a problem with James Reilly. Her speech left no one in any doubt but that she does not agree with how the health service is being run or the plans for its reform. She made a very admirable speech. She then voted confidence in the Minister. Why? Because she believes in him? Clearly not. No, it was because to do anything else may have seriously damaged the government and cost her a junior ministry.
No matter what the government must go on. During 2010 it was clear that an election had to come, reports even suggest that Brian Lenihan favoured an election during that summer only to be told by Brian Cowen that they would ‘muddle on’. They did that alright. When disaster struck with the EU/IMF bailout it should have been enough to bring any government down. But no, ‘stability’ was the war cry. Get the budget through. Convince yourself it is for the good of the country. The reality was that the country wanted an election, the EU feared what an election might turn up and better the current guys stayed in place and did the necessary. Both Fianna Fail and the Greens, in my opinion, paid a price for staying too long and an earlier election would have been kinder to both. They were blinded though. Blinded by the same obsession that drives our current government. The desire to stay in power; ride things out, wait for a better opportunity. All lack the courage to walk away from politics, to do what they believe. If it results in rejection then at least you stood by a principle.
From 1997 to 2007 Ireland enjoyed long term stable governments. We had no snap elections and very few crisis moments. How did that work out for us? How did the endless compromises and deals, agreements and handshakes finally pan out? In fact if one were to examine some of our more argumentative and short lived governments we might find that, to use boxing parlance, ‘pound for pound’ they achieved more.
The point is that good government is not necessarily about how long you last. It is about doing the right thing and having the courage of your convictions. It is about fights and arguments and about a willingness to walk away rather than implement something you don’t believe in or can plainly see is wrong. It’s about being honest with yourself and the people. Justice must be done though the heavens may fall. So long as we continue to have politicians across all parties who favour a strategy, a game, a way of just getting one over on the other guy then we are destined for failure. Politics is not a career. It is somewhere you go to express your ideas and vision and try gather support. If you fail to get support you walk away and go back to an actual career. You do not change just to stay in power.
This Dail term will see it more than ever. Don’t wreck the government. Think of the country. It’s not worth the fight. Don’t rock the boat. Say what you like but vote with the government. Don’t do it Albert. Plus ca change.