Terry Prone: Running for any public office is ridiculed and that’s before you lose

I was struck by how the candidates who didn’t make it were either cast aside as statistics feeding into the bigger picture, or as failures, who caused their own immolation, writes Terry Prone

Ballot boxes being opened at the RDS in Dublin yesterday, at the start of the general election count. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Ballot boxes being opened at the RDS in Dublin yesterday, at the start of the general election count. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Collective abuse of a minority. That’s a general election. It is the most abusive form of job-seeking. For starters, the jobseeker is entitled to none of the confidentiality of someone who applies for a job in the county council or in a multinational. If you apply for a political post, everybody knows about it.

Then, instead of arriving at a corporate HR floor for an interview with a panel trained to put you at your ease, you have to go door to door: An itinerant peddler of yourself.

You are braced for the householder who has a lot to get off their chest, or whose view of you is due south of pond scum. You run between houses, so you arrive at doors sweaty and breathless, not knowing whether they’re going to be civilised or interrogative or just plain rude.

Sometimes, civilised is the worst. This is where voters are impersonally polite to you, taking your literature and tolerating you asking them if they’re on the register. When that happens, be afraid. Be very afraid. Because it means they made up their mind some time back. They’re definitely not going to vote for you, but they don’t feel the need to tell you so, or to tell you why. Nor do they feel the need to argue with you. Easier for everybody, they figure, if they let you do your little spiel, thank you civilly for it, and close the door, while you buzz off into the darkness.

The novices, new to the political game, comfort themselves with that politeness. The experienced candidates get cramps in their insides, cramps not eased by the occasional friendly passerby, who says, “You’re OK with me; I’ll take care of you” while indicating that you should keep moving, because they know you need to beg for every available vote. Which you do, knowing in your waters how few are actually available. You’re like the horse in Animal Farm, working harder and faster to achieve less and less.

By the time you read this, many candidates will have passed the quota and been elected. For every one elected, two or more will have been eliminated. But that harsh term — eliminated — is just a tiny part of the pointillism of pain experienced by the candidates rejected by the electorate.

The vast majority of candidates in this election hoped they’d be elected. If the wind was in the right direction and the pleasant comments being made to them in the street indicated anything, maybe they’d be able to put “TD” after their name.

A few may have been more realistic. Valerie Cox, a veteran reporter, probably knew her chances were somewhere between slim and skeletal, but putting herself up allowed her to stay current, to refresh her name and presence in the public mind, at least in Wicklow. Watch the Valerie Cox space: This woman may gather around her a generation of older people fed up with being fired or eased out of their jobs because of ageism. She is unlikely, we hope, to suffer from the Simon Dee syndrome, where someone is remembered for having been forgotten. (1960s BBC radio host Dee later became a bus driver.)

Today, analysing results on radio and TV programmes, I was struck by how the candidates who didn’t make it were either cast aside as statistics feeding into the bigger picture, or as failures, who caused their own immolation. We commentators need to be interesting, you see, and being interesting in media is sometimes helped by a little human sacrifice, as Ivan Yates might confirm.

Poll topper Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire of Sinn Fein is shouldered in celebration at the Cork South Central Count Centre at Nemo Rangers GAA Club in Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Poll topper Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire of Sinn Fein is shouldered in celebration at the Cork South Central Count Centre at Nemo Rangers GAA Club in Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

Also, let’s be honest, some failed candidates are hard to sympathise with, because of what they purvey. Like Gemma Doherty. Like Peter Casey. I’d have forgotten Casey, were it not for the fact that he had a big landscape-shaped poster in Drumcondra, which I passed several times when on my way home from work each day. The poster should be saved by every student of politics as an example of how not to do one. It had no picture of the candidate. (How were we going to remember him?) It had a cartoon of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that was so ineptly drawn it took me three journeys to work out who it was supposed to be. It had 10 reasons not to vote for Varadkar: A crowded list in print so small you’d need to get out of your car and kneel down right in front of it (because it was pretty low to the ground) to work out what it was saying. Casey seems to be rich and hungry for media presence, but he doesn’t have quite the compelling charm to render him into an Irish Trump. He is now squarely in Simon Dee territory.

If you’re part of a driven organisation that’s getting bigger with each election, then failing to get into the Oireachtas this time around can’t be that bad. The outing constitutes no more than a blooding: an audition from which you will learn. One first-timer muttered to me on Sunday that it was a learning experience for him. “I learned I was out of my mind to even think about getting into such a cesspit,” he told me, grateful for his early elimination and relative obscurity.

For media, the defeat and removal of a Cabinet minister are an exciting part of the morality tale that is election coverage. For the Cabinet minister, it’s a version of American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald’s description of how you go bankrupt: slowly at first and then very quickly.

The former minister sickens with the awful realisation that they are a fungible commodity, replaceable in one announcement by someone they may never have rated.

For some, the despair and trauma are exacerbated by the knowledge that people in the same constituency, in their own party, poisoned the well in some vicious, clever way, which the failed candidate didn’t have time to correct in the minds of the voters. They stand listening to the name of the villain being announced as a winner, knowing the futility of demanding head office action, post-factum, to reinforce normative standards.

They drive home, listening to themselves being composted by commentators, suddenly stripped of their responsibilities, stripped of being needed, stripped of their very identity. They try to muster enough energy to thank and commiserate with the friends and family who put their heart into their campaign.What they do not, this early, realise, is that the novel coronavirus has nothing on losing an election for creating fear of contagion. Nobody wants to be near you. Everybody convinces themselves that this is because they know you’d like to be with your family at this time.

The losers need to weep, but also to repeat to themselves Julian of Norwich’s chant: “All will be well and all manner of things will be well.”

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