Politicians deserve more than our vote. They deserve our respect, too

Abuse and invective directed at our elected representatives are a reflection of the times, writes Alison O’Connor.

Politicians deserve more than our vote. They deserve our respect, too

Abuse and invective directed at our elected representatives are a reflection of the times, writes Alison O’Connor.

The coming year will be big for elections. We will have European and local elections in May, and only a fool would rule out a general election. So, you’ll be seeing plenty of politicians over the next few months, and perhaps a New Year’s resolution would be to be a little nicer to them.

I’ve noticed a recurrent theme during the last few months. It’s cropped up in conversations not just with politicians, but also with those who try to persuade people to go into politics.

No longer are people clamouring to get on a party ticket; they have to be persuaded. They just reckon they don’t need that sort of hassle in their lives.

A few weeks ago, a TD of long-standing told me: “There used to be a prestige, you were someone in your community (as a politician). Not anymore. Then, there is also the abuse,” she said.

This deputy has every intention of fighting hard to win her seat the next time, but politics is not seen as a profession in the same way that it used to be.

Abuse and invective directed at our elected representatives are a reflection of the times.

You’re seen as going against the tide if you suggest that politicians are anything other than good-for-nothing, over-paid, and privileged. By and large, politicians, local or national, can’t do right for doing wrong.

I sat in on a conversation recently where a woman, who is considering standing in the local elections, asked the assembled group if she would really have to establish a social media presence. The answer around the table was a resounding yes.

But it was also suggested she get someone else to operate it, in order to protect her from the inevitable abuse.

Social media is a problem for all politicians, even those who clearly enjoy it and are good at it. No-one political is immune from abuse. It’s not like Facebook and Twitter heralded the start of it, but they certainly escalated and intensified it.

Female politicians get it far worse than men.

Just recently, I heard former tánaiste and leader of the Labour party, Joan Burton, talk of social media postings that threatened an acid attack to “fix her”.

Just before Christmas, I spoke to Tipperary Fine Gael councillor Mary Hanna Hourigan. Politics is in her blood.

It is a passion for her, and she is determined to continue.

“I thrive on what I do,” she said, simply.

Speaking at the ‘Politics Needs Women’ conference, held just before Christmas to mark 100 years of women getting the vote, she caused an audible intake of breath throughout the audience when she told a story of a response from a male colleague at a meeting.

It was an issue relating to the HSE and Mary Hanna said she thought the health body was not fit for purpose and she felt frustrated by trying to deal with it in her work.

The male politician responded to Mary Hanna’s remarks. “Well, if she’s frustrated, I know what I would do to sort her out,” he said. His comments went unchallenged by the other men there.

“Nobody took him on and said, ‘you shouldn’t speak to someone like that.’ It went without any consequences for him,” recalled Mary Hanna.

Often, in her local area, a female councillor might be the only woman representative at a meeting, or, in a meeting of the full council, there might be less than a handful.

In Donegal County Council, there are just three women out of 37 elected representatives.

Women face more barriers in getting into, and remaining in, politics than men.

But Mary Hanna also pointed to another problem, which I heard echoed by a number of her local authority colleagues, and that is that the annual salary is not enough, especially not if you work as a councillor full-time.

In December, the Government received an interim report from senior counsel Sara Moorhead, who was tasked with reviewing the role and remuneration of local authority members.

Currently, they receive a package of payments that starts with a basic “representational payment” of €16,891 per year.

They also receive a new allowance worth €1,000 per annum, introduced last November and backdated to July 1, 2017 (following local government reforms introduced in 2014) in recognition of an additional workload.

There is an “optional, vouched expenses allowance”, worth up to a maximum of €5,000 per annum, which councillors may choose to opt for, in place of an unvouched allowance, worth approximately €2,500 per annum.

A salary hike for politicians is designed to infuriate the ‘hangin’ is too good for them’ brigade, who would starve rather than reward politicians.

But that approach is as juvenile as it is daft. A good local councillor works hard and deserves proper payment.

“If they don’t start looking after councillors, they will lose them. I know people who got elected and dropped out in the middle of the term, because they hadn’t realised the work involved,” said Ms Hourigan. “For instance, I am now an expert on any number of issues, from people losing their homes and all the financial and legal issues involved there, to health issues to mental health, as far as taking people for treatment.”

For women who give birth while they are serving councillors, there is the added complication of no maternity leave and of not getting paid if they miss a meeting after giving birth.

More widely, while politicians — local and national — are not leaving in their droves, and it’s not impossible to find people to stand for election, there is a pattern of disillusionment.

We may need to think the unthinkable and consider being just a little nicer to our politicians. Contrary to popular belief, a large swathe of them are far more than good-for-nothing.

In fact, they’re well able for an awful lot of what’s thrown at them. But even they have their limits.

So, when you open your door to one of them, canvassing for your vote over the next few months, you might even consider thanking them for bothering to make the effort.

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