The clustering of professions from which our politicians sprout

AS the woman opened the bedroom door to let the two young doctors in to see her sick husband, one of them put his arm out to halt the other.

“Watch,” he said.

The second man did as ordered. What he saw looked like a moving carpet: a grey wave of movement across the floor.

“He’s dead,” the first doctor said quietly. "Lice leave people the moment they die.”

The second doctor stood, stunned, in the door of the tenement house, robbed of function. It was the moment that Dr John O’Connell resolved to go into politics. He realised that, while a Jewish doctor friend had focussed him on treating the poor of Dublin, he could not, as a GP, make the difference to them that he might as a national politician.

Dr John, as he became known, is one of dozens, perhaps hundreds of medical professionals who have gone into politics. Doctors (and nurses) see the human consequences of economic realities in a uniquely personal way. They tend to have a sense of mission and entitlement and the education to back up both, and so they are drawn to politics. Noel Browne and John O'Connell came from the Labour Party (although O’Connell later moved to Fianna Fáil.) More recently, Liam Twomey, Leo Varadker and James Reilly belong to Fine Gael.

The clustering of professions from which politicians sprout is fascinating. The law provides a consistent stream of men and women who want to make an impact on how legislation is framed, rather than

simply implementing the faits accompli. The Taoiseach is a solicitor. The Minister for Finance is a barrister. Olwyn Enright is another solicitor.

And then there are the teachers. Teaching – and increasingly this is true of nursing, also – seems to be a weigh-station profession for many people. While some teachers regard it as a vocation for life, seeking to keep at it even after official retirement age, others see it as a good place from which to jump into something else, and the “something else” has always included politics, not least because teachers, like GPs, have a prominence in local communities around the country which lends itself to vote-getting. Parents who have seen a particular teacher develop potential in their child tend to assume that the same energy and commitment would be valuable in Leinster House.

The odd thing is that, at least up to recently, the local bank manager had something of the same prominence and was regarded as similarly influential, if not powerful, so it's a mystery why bankers have never been attracted to politics in large numbers. It’s not a mystery why civil servants would not end up in the Dáil: they’re supposed to be pure as the driven slush and devoid of family or personal political affiliations. In addition, they’re permanent and pensionable and would need their heads looked at if they abandoned both for the possibility of being selected and run by a political party when, if they didn't win the seat, would have to find themselves another job outside of the civil service and start a brand new career path from a position of public rejection and failure.

Current affairs journalists, or at least some of them, tend to believe that half the elected representatives at any one time are morons and that they, the journalists, could do a million times better. Most of them have the wit to keep themselves and their convictions in the day job, but every generation produces a few brave individuals who cast their fame to the winds and opt instead for predictable opprobrium. George Lee was just the latest in a long procession, although he has the distinction of realising faster than any other former hack just how quickly he needed to reverse out of Leinster House.

One of the most successful was Justin Keating, an academic who served as a Labour minister. Keating, in his previous incarnation, managed to make agricultural broadcasting so impelling that to this day, having watched him explain, using graphics your three-year-old would have been proud of, how to assist a cow having difficulty calving, I could roll up my sleeves and get in there to extract the recalcitrant calf. Keating was part of the wave of brilliant men from other professions drawn to politics in the turbulent sixties. Another, markedly less successful, was David Thornley, one of the most charismatic geniuses ever to broadcast for RTÉ. Had he stayed there, he might well be remembered as having helped to define the great years of the national broadcaster. Politics and its dire accompaniments ate away his potential and eviscerated the legacy he might otherwise have left.

Ted Nealon and Pat Cox, on the other hand, flourished in their post-broadcasting political careers, Nealon surviving almost 20 years of elections and becoming a minister of state, although it's arguable that his major contribution to politics was his invention of a published guide which - prior to instant research on the internet – was the key resource for anybody broadcasting, writing or studying politics.

In this country, we don't have a tradition matching that in America, where military experience is the key qualification for a political career. The absolute obedience and loyalty to comrades demanded by fighting in a war casts an aura of electability around some Americans, although John Kerry and John McCain were defeated in spite of it. Sometimes, a military man's political instincts were visible long before he entered active politics. During World War II, General George Patten, despite having good reasons for gratitude to his commander, Dwight ‘Ike’ Eisenhower, was nonetheless irked by Eisenhower’s manner when he accompanied him on a tour of the troops. It was, he said, more that of “an office seeker rather than that of a soldier.”

In Ireland, the equivalent of military experience is GAA stardom. A new book by Conor McMorrow, Dáil Stars From Croke Park to Leinster House, tracks the careers of a number of current and former TDs who made the transition from the sports field. Each brought fame (at the time), the ability to work in a team and the valuable grounding of GAA politics. And at least one brought with him the rhetoric of the dressing room; Shane McEntee, brother of an all-Ireland footballer and himself a trainer of his local club. During a move against Enda Kenny’s leadership, McMorrow reports, McEntee, “his voice cracking with emotion and tears in his eyes,” fought for his leader, telling colleagues Kenny would “lie down on that floor and die for you.”

Of course, the statistics of former GAA stars going into politics are skewed by a dearth of the lucrative post-athletic roles available in other countries. Many of them, towards the end of their national sporting careers, already have jobs in business. As does Seán Óg O hAilpín.

That said, if Seán Óg decided to run in the next general election, no matter which party he chose, I swear I'd move residence and constituency just to vote for him.

Not because of his hurling, but because of his quietly energetic commitment to powerless people.

Because that must always be the single most important qualification for politics.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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