Thursday, May 14, 2009

Abandon all hope, ye Fianna Fáilers

Galway City West at the moment is a constituency where even angels (of the green variety) fear to tread. From a variety of sources I have heard of Fianna Fáil canvassers being chased from doors, signs saying ‘No Fianna Fáilers wanted here’ and houses where every approaching step is growled at from behind a firmly shut front door. Even Danté didn’t have to put up with that.

Funnily enough, this reaction seems to be confined to Galway City West, a hugely middle class, middle income constituency. From no other constituency are such widespread reports coming of candidates being almost mauled as they seek a vote.

18.3 per cent of those living in the constituency are managers or employers, with a further 14 per cent classed as higher professional. At the time of the census in 2006, there were just 137 unskilled workers in the area. Galway City West is a solidly well-off area. Or was, at least, until the recession began to bite; today’s results might be somewhat different.

And there lies the rub. Fianna Fáil canvassers are currently finding, as Danté did, that there are three types of beast: the self-indulgent, the violent, and the malicious. And all of them have an axe to grind, be it the general state of the economy, the pension levy, or job losses.

The irony of it all is that the area doesn’t currently have a Fianna Fáil councillor, so much of the ire is being misdirected. Voters showed the party, in the shape of Tom Cox and Val Hanley, the door, in 2004. Previously, businesswoman Margaret Cox topped the poll for the party, but did not seek re-election on a local level.

So the problems of Bearna, Knocknacarra, Salthill, Taylor’s Hill, Rockbarton, and the Claddagh are not attributable to Fianna Fáil – at least on a local level. Lack of infrastructure in the Knocknacarra area, in particular, is attributable both to the council and to central government, but on the council, at least, Fianna Fáil can’t really be blamed for it.

So what we are seeing in the area is the much-vaunted venting of anger against Government being manifested in the local elections. This can be productive, but, as a friend of mine on the opposing side remarked recently, “I think it’s a good plan to get crucified in local and European and win general elections myself…”

Punishing local candidates in mid-term local elections might come straight from Danté’s eighth circle, in which those guilty of “conscious fraud or treachery” are tortured, but in reality, it’s not the best way to go about things.

Because, once a voter’s lust for revenge is sated by condemning some local election candidate to the refuse bin of history, repeated elections have shown that said voter’s memory is wiped clean, and they remember that Eamon, or Frank, or whoever, was always good to Mammy. Leaving the country, like Danté’s pal Virgil, in Limbo. Abandon hope, indeed.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

George Lee eh? Putting your money where your mouth is, and why our system doesn't let it happen

Fair play to the guy.

Putting your money where your mouth happens to be is an unusual occurrence in Irish public life and you really have to commend George Lee for doing so.

There has been a lot of comment recently about the deficiencies of our political system. Along with the usual old chestnuts of Seanad reform and the number of junior ministers, more serious questions are now being asked about our political structures, not least the holy cow of PRSTV.

PRSTV is the system left to us by the British (who have since changed it) and inserted into the Constitution by deValera, that means we vote for candidates on a transfer-based ballot paper. Thus, the success of candidates such as Cyprian Brady, who have little personal appeal but can be carried by insanely popular constituency colleagues.

The system does have its benefits. More of the population gets a say in who represents them, because if our first choice doesn't get elected, our second, or third, might. This is directly in contrast to the English first-past-the-post system, in which, theoretically, 49% of the population could end up dissatisfied with the choice of the other 51%.

However, the drawbacks have become increasingly obvious over the past fifteen years, say some commentators - mainly the ones with an axe to grind with Fianna Fáil, which has learned to play the PRSTV system very skilfully indeed. These days, of course, most people have an axe to grind with Fianna Fáil.

One candidate's superhuman popularity levels - see above example - should not result in the election of a colleague simply because they belong to the same party. Usually constituency colleages profoundly dislike each other and transferring is last thing on their agenda (see Willie O'Dea's electoral record - he refuses to note transfer options on his election posters).

Also, the system means we put the small, local, picture ahead of national considerations. We are not a great nation for looking at the bigger picture and this is exemplified in the way many of us vote. There must be thousands of people in Ireland who "hate" Fianna Fáil, but always vote for Johnny FF down the road because of that time he got Mammy into the nursing home.

It also means that "sweeper" candidates with no real interest in the job (or hope of getting it, in many cases) are chosen to help strategically "better" candidates make the cut, and "strategy" can overcome talent and common sense. This is clearly not a feature of a healthy democracy.

And it brings us back to George Lee in Dublin South (not suggesting for a moment that he fits into the above category). Few people doubt that he will get elected. He is a genuinely good and capable candidate with a record of hard work and a solid knowledge of the economy, which is more than you can say for the vast majority of our TDs.

However, George Lee would be very unlikely to do well in a General Election in the same constituency. Why? The constituency is already home to Alan Shatter and Olivia Mitchell, two very respected and secure FG TDs.

To put Lee in the running in a GE environment, when Fianna Fáil would soak up votes with two, three or even four candidates, would be a terrible strategy for FG, and could even lose them two of their three seats by splitting the vote. Because of transfers, and despite the fact that I am pretty sure everyone in the country would like to be voting in Dublin South on 5 June, purely so they could vote for George Lee.

While we continue to use PRSTV, people like Lee (but who lack a timely bye election) will stay disengaged and uninvolved, because party strategies, and the vagaries of the system, will mean they would have to spend hours attending meetings and funerals just to become known by every Tom, Dick and Harry in the constituency.

The way transfers work means TDs (and councillors) spend the vast majority of their time "making representations" to disinterested civil servants who reply by rote, and attending funerals of people they met once at a match, and writing letters to people who rang every TD in the country about the pothole outside their front door. Any sane individual would realise that this is a scandalous waste of public money and time. But we allow it to go on.

TDs, quite understandably, are reluctant to be voted out, so even the best and brightest of them carry on this charade. If you look back over the electoral records of some of our more productive TDs and Ministers you will find them patchy. They might be churning out reforms and legislation, and making thousands of peoples' lives better in quantifiable ways, but if they don't respond to constituency letters within a week and send representations asking for constituents in prison to be moved to their local jail, they are dead meat.

So George, the best of luck to you.

But until the system changes, we will not see any improvement in our political system, no matter who's in Government.

News fatigue

Is it any wonder people are sick of us? Journalists, that is. We regularly come at the top of lists of the least-trusted professions, and people have taken to switching their TV channel the minute the news comes on, lest they hear more doom and gloom.

An interesting trend has emerged over the past few months. ABE syndrome, it’s called; Anything But the Economy. Journalists are prepared to cover almost anything to avoid writing (or talking, or filming) about anything to do with the economy and the sorry state we find ourselves in.

One national paper went so far as to print a photo of a football-playing dog on its front page during January, purely to lift the gloom. And we can hardly blame them.

When news is your bread and butter, and your passion, it’s very hard to acknowledge that news fatigue has hit. That you, too, like almost every rational person in the country, hits the off button the minute poor George Lee appears on the TV or Brian Cowen speaks on the radio.

When you have lived your life online, constantly checking news sites for updates and needing, craving the newspaper every morning, news fatigue hits as rather a shock.

So, when something happened last week to distract from the economy – although it was equally negative and underlined the sense of doom pervading media at the moment – it was leapt on by journalists across the world.

Swine flu. What can’t it do? Never mind that we have been assured by the HSE that swine flu hasn’t reached Ireland yet. Never mind that we have been stockpiling anti-viral drugs for years (since the avian flu epidemic that never was) and never mind that we are an island nation and thus probably the easiest to protect from the point of view of quarantine.

This could be serious!

TV images of masks being handed out on the street in Mexico City (one of the poorest and most densely populated places in the world) gave a thrilling sense of an emergency that, for once, had absolutely nothing to do with the credit crunch or the economy or unemployment or, God help him, Brian Cowen.

True - if it does come here, swine flu could affect a lot of people, although it does not appear to be spreading as quickly as initially thought. It could create a lot of sick days and thus another burden for the (sorry, here’s that word again) economy.

True – like other strains of the flu, swine flu could develop into pneumonia in the particularly vulnerable. Elderly people, young children and those with weakened immune systems should all be monitored especially carefully.

But this holds true for these groups at this time of year every year – when ordinary, seasonal flu, kills people whose systems are not equipped to fight the onset of pneumonia.

Unfortunately, while the economy remains the only other show in town, we are going to sit through months of coverage of a “global pandemic” that might never happen, while ignoring the one that has already affected most of us; ABE syndrome.