The politics of broken toilets

May 6th, 2009 | By | Category: Ireland

Sitting beside the Minister at a lengthy and monotonous gathering, one is compelled to ponder the staying power of Irish politicians.  Would you give up your Saturday evening to come to such an occasion in the expectation of your presence being noted by a few dozen people?  There’s not even a guarantee that they would vote for you (though even the most monotonous gathering is probably better than Saturday evening television).

A lull in the proceedings allowed a chance for conversation,

I heard one of your colleagues went to Strasbourg last month and returned to find a message on his answering machine from one of his constituents complaining that the county council would not fix the toilet seat in his council house”.

“Who was that?”

I named the minister concerned.

“I wouldn’t believe all his stories”.

The minister went silent for a moment.

“Having said that, I was at Mass two weeks ago and someone came up to me on the church steps and said that their cistern wasn’t working.

It was hardly the sort of thing you expect to think about on the way out of church.

Anyway, the same person came up to me last week and said it was fixed.

‘Did you call the council?’ I asked. ‘No’, he said, ‘why would I call the council. It’s my own house.  What would you make of someone who expected a TD to sort out the plumbing problems of their own house?”

What indeed?

But that is the nature of Irish politics; it is riven with clientelism. ‘Vote for me and I’ll do this for you’. ‘What will you do for me, if I vote for you?

Constituencies are so small that a few dozen votes can make the difference between success and failure.  In multi-member constituencies where being elected may depend on transfers from someone else at the ninth or tenth count of the single transferable vote proportional representation system, it is dangerous to alienate any group of people; you never know when a handful of transfers may cost you your career.

The system is clientelist and those who are part of it expect their offer of patronage to successfully buy the votes of their grateful electorate.  Meeting the Minister after the May 2007 general election, I said, “Congratulations – even if I did not vote for you”.

“Who did you vote for?”

“Labour – as my father before me and my grandfather before him”.

“Labour! What have Labour ever done for you or for your parish or for your school?”

To have attempted to explain that politics was about issues and not what could be squeezed out of TDs looking for votes would have been a pointless exercise.

Good luck to George Lee on becoming fine Gael candidate in the  Dublin South by election.  It will be a big change from talking to the nation about major economic issues to talking to constituents about their bathroom fittings.

Leave a comment »

  1. Yes. It seems to me that very few people look at the bigger picture anymore. Self interest reigns supreme.

  2. There is no opportunity of any proper political discussion here because neither of the main parties have any clear political philosophy, so, in place of campaigning, we get populist rhetoric.

Leave Comment