TIS the time to be laying into politicians. ‘Tis the time to be calling them to account. Over the coming weeks, they will sidle up to your door and politely ask you to put your faith in their ability to govern on your behalf.
For some voters, this is payback time. There will be tongue-lashings, and anger, frustration and general discontent. This is right and proper. Politicians must be held to account.
But what of the voters? Democracy is a two-sided coin. Politicians have responsibilities and they often don’t live up to them. But what responsibilities have voters to maintain a liberal democracy? Do voters have any responsibility towards standards?
This question will not be to the fore in County Tipperary in the forthcoming election. According to Paddy Power’s odds, Michael Lowry is the third favourite to get the highest vote in the election.
Only Enda Kenny and Gerry Adams are regarded as better-placed to be the most popular politician in the country.
On Wednesday, a High Court judge pointed out that in the Moriarty Report Lowry had been found to have engaged in “a litany of falsification and deception”. Judge John Hedigan referred to “findings of perjury and bribery of a potential witness to support Mr Lowry’s false evidence”. The description is a damning indictment of Lowry’s character from the judiciary, whose members speak carefully, particularly in delivering a ruling.
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There is little doubt but that some politicians from Government parties will get a verbal walloping on some doorsteps in Tipperary. They will be excoriated for breaking promises; for not paying attention to certain sections of society; for losing the run of themselves. Some of these encounters may end with a slammed door. Others will be concluded with a firm refusal to countenance any vote for the candidate.
By contrast, the forecasts suggest that the reception for Mr Lowry, in many quarters, will be of a kind usually reserved for folk heroes. There will be none of that old guff about bribery, perjury or corruption. All that matters is Mick’s the man in delivering for the constituency. And when he can’t deliver, he gives the impression that he moved mountains, but unseen forces were railed against him and, sure, isn’t he only human.
There’s nothing in the water in Tipperary that softens moral backbones. It’s the same throughout the State. Independent councillor, Michael Clarke, topped the poll in his area, in Sligo, in the last two local elections. In 2002, he was convicted of fraud, involving a scam in which public money was siphoned out of the Department of Agriculture. He was sent to prison for two years.
Often, prisoners who serve their time find it difficult to get back into the workforce. Clarke, despite stealing public money, had no problem getting elected back onto the council. By all accounts, he’s a great man for delivering.
Look at the three councillors exposed in the recent Prime Time Investigates programme into petty corruption. None resigned, mainly because they are all relatively confident of re-election.
This has nothing to do with rural Ireland. Dublin councillor, Tony Fox, lost his seat at the 2014 local elections. He was 72, and maybe a little past the hurly-burly of politics.
The previous year, he had been charged with bribery offences relating to rezoning land in Dublin, but the charges were dropped when the chief witness, Frank Dunlop, was deemed too unhealthy to give evidence.
Fox first came to prominence when he was named by Dunlop at the Mahon Tribunal, in 2004, as a councillor who had received inducements for his vote. Yet, despite that, Fox got re-elected twice, before losing his seat.
All politics is local and some would suggest that voters’ inclination to ignore low standards is rooted in this truism. Not so. At a national level, there remains an ambivalent attitude towards standards. In 2007, Bertie Ahern called the election a few days ahead of the date that was forecast, on the basis that a Sunday newspaper was about to run a story about his personal finances. Ahern’s finances had been the focus of the Mahon Tribunal, by that time, for more than two years.
The first week of the campaign was dominated by the issue. The matter involved the character of the man who wanted to be re-elected Taoiseach. Stories suggested that he had not been forthcoming with a tribunal that was set up by the Oireachtas.
Questions were being raised as to the veracity of a highly emotional interview he had given the previous September, as an explanation for receiving huge wads of money in the 1990s.
And, then, a strange thing happened. An opinion poll illustrated that voters were not interested in the story, and, if anything, saw Mr Ahern as some form of victim. The feedback to the media was to ‘concentrate on the issues’, which suggested that the character of the next Taoiseach was not an issue. All that mattered was that he had delivered, and could be trusted to continue delivering. With that sort of sentiment abroad, opposition politicians — and Ahern’s coalition partner in government, the Progressive Democrats — ran for cover. If the voters didn’t give a fig about possible impropriety in high office, then they sure as hell weren’t going to, either.
One explanation that is often forwarded for this absence of a moral barometer is that corruption, including white collar crime, is rarely subjected to sanction. If a culture of impunity exists, why would anybody bother about whether their representatives are honest, once any dishonesty doesn’t directly affect a constituency? (One example of voters turning on a dishonest politician was Liam Lawlor, who committed the cardinal sin of engaging in corruption in his own constituency through rezoning. Be corrupt if you must, but never in your own backyard).
There’s more to it than that, though. Voters have a responsibility, also. Voters impart the values they want to see among their representatives. If those values involve giving a franchise to dishonest politicians, why would any honest politician mount a high horse and declare himself above the rabble?
Enda Kenny quite obviously sees things that way, as per his refusal to rule Mr Lowry out of any government arrangement in the future. The only chink of light was that those in his party, and in Labour, who saw things differently were of a younger generation.
Still, the young vote for Mr Lowry, too, and for others like him. It’s no harm at this time, when democracy is at its keenest, that voters have some regard for their own responsibilities. You can’t excoriate some politicians for breaking unrealistic election promises, while retaining a sneaking regard for others who have no standards at all.
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