During one of those Capitol Hill hearings Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg occasionally attends, one of the challenges facing our world was underlined in a cringe-making way. One of his inquisitors, a venerable of American politics, asked Zuckerberg how Facebook makes its money. This was not a leading question; the politician did not fully understand how Facebook’s grip on the global advertising market has made Zuckerberg one of the world’s most powerful figures. A veteran footsoldier of democracy was pitched against one of the great innovators of our time. That situation was, and always will be, an uneven match. It showed — glaringly — what happens when political systems weaken themselves by making participation unattractive for a cohort who might foster positive change. The mood of the day, one that sees conspiracy everywhere, might suggest that these constraints are not accidental but rather remain a very effective old boys’ club sleight.
The choice offered to America’s voters last month shows how this process plays out. It is unlikely that, without prompting from a cadre of informed staffers, Joe Biden, 78, or Donald Trump, 74, would have laid a glove on Zuckerberg. Those men exemplify how limited choices can be when political gatekeepers keep the greasy pole all too well greased. That dynamic is why the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen must deal with Boris Johnson. Johnson might have been elected even if Labour had offered a more attractive alternative but he might not have the shackles-off majority he now exploits.
That Hobson’s choice is a garrotte here too. At the next election, whenever it might be, our choice will be between Sinn Féin’s fantasies, economic and historical, or parties philosophically incapable of changing tack to resolve our great social difficulties. That narrowing is apparent in Fianna Fáil. Just as Taoiseach Micheál Martin faces increasingly disappointed men and women they look around a parliamentary party meeting for a Bonepart to lead them and all they see is one Sgt Bilko sitting beside another. So much for participation and renewal.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee might offer an answer. Last weekend she announced she is pregnant. That happy moment highlights two exceptional realities: She will be, hopefully, the first cabinet minister in the history of this Republic to become a mother while in office. Even more startlingly, she will, in 2021, not be entitled to even one day’s maternity leave. Is it any wonder that barely more than one in five TDs — 22.5% — are women? The Social Democrats buck that trend; four of their six deputies — 66% — are women. One of them, Holly Cairns reflected what must be the majority view when she argued for maternity leave rights for all elected representatives.
The Dáil can do little enough about Brexit or climate change. It can hardly save the Uyghurs or those sold in the slave markets of Tripoli but they can resolve this anachronism and open the door to bright young women. How much better it would have been if the effort invested in winning a seat on the UN Security Council was used to clear this blockage. Let us all hope that is done before all of McEntee’s peers go to work for Zuckerberg.