MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Slugging it out in bearpit of democracy

Michael McDowell at the General Election count at the RDS, Dublin in 2007.

How could you stand before people and ask them to invest their future in you without a big ego, writes Michael Clifford

Today is the day when democracy sits back and opens up. Those who have dreamed of this day arriving will drink it in, and probably cherish it for the rest of their lives. Others are going to be delivered a blow that goes right to the core of their being. And yet more will experience joy in the simple twist of fate that ekes out a victory from expected defeat. No, this is not a reference to the Ireland-England rugby match this evening but the general election count.

So much for those who will participate in the bloodsport. For the rest of us, it will be a day of drama and surprises, chatter and recriminations. Out there somewhere at dawn’s hour this morning, some politico or media personage has risen, gone outside and sniffed the air, before declaring: “I love the smell of napalm on the morning of The Count.”

Mainstream politics is in the dock right now, and there is an unprecedented animus between elements of the mainstream and those advocating a radically different route. Yet all will be kindred spirits in the theatre that determines who will be deemed to enjoy the people’s confidence.

For that reason, the emotions generated at the bearpit of Irish Democracy — known as The Count — are of a primal nature. As the boxes are upturned and emptied, out will spill the results of the candidates’ efforts through the campaign, and, for incumbents, the verdict on performance since last elected.

Their people, the tallymen and women for the parties, your standard supporter for the large band of independents, will scribble and calculate, do the sums and try to remain calm through either the tide coming in on victory, or slipping out on expected defeat.

There will be frantic phonecalls. There will be laptop spreadsheets. There will be exchanged glances transmitting results. There will be multitudes tweeting like blue-arsed flies. There will be, undoubtedly for many, the period once referred to by Alex Ferguson as “squeeky bum time”.

The candidates will exist through these hours in suspended animation. Bertie Ahern apparently used to sleep right through until evening, exhausted from the campaign and programmed to be elsewhere as the drama unfolded.

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Ivan Yates said earlier this week that he used to get drunk on polling night and exist in the nether world of a hangover until it was time to attend the count in the afternoon.

On days like this, we might ask why do they do it? Why subject yourself to this brutal verdict of the masses, most of whom don’t really know you at all?

There are myriad reasons why people get into politics:

  • Some find themselves drawn to it nearly by accident, having just got involved to help out their local community on a single issue.
  • Others are driven to effect change in aspects of society with which they disagree.
  • Some see it as a route to making an impact on righting wrongs like social injustice. And yet more like the colour of the money that can be made.
  • Others are born into it, growing up as if the spectre of a queue of people arriving at their home for assistance of one form or another is the most natural thing in the world. These children of politicians will also have noted the elevated status of daddy or mammy in the community — until recent times at least — and presume that it is merely a family trait and that the seat is an heirloom.

Ego has to play a part in the make-up of those who will be judged today. How could you stand before people and ask them to invest their future in you without a big ego. But beyond that there must also be an element of neediness in a politician’s motivations to serve.

Just as the actor requires applause for affirmation, many politicians enjoy the role of counsellor/fixer who is there to help citizens acquire what they would be entitled to as a matter of course in a properly functioning state.

Meanwhile, back at the count, the day will turn to night without a result for many. At some stage though, the candidates will be invited up to join the returning officer for the final result. Thereon they will stand before the people, the victorious on a pedestal, the vanquished in the stocks, and reflect on what it was that brought them to this point.

Certainly, today will be the high point for those who achieve elevation to the national parliament for the first time, but spare a thought for the others who will see their careers in public life come to an brutal end.

Two defeats in particular come to mind. In 2002, when the State engaged in a brief flirtation with electronic voting, the first result came from North Dublin on the night of the election.

The candidates lined up as the figures were shown, and what emerged was that Nora Owen had been defeated after 21 years as a TD (apart from a two-year hiatus between ’87 and ’89). She stood there having to absorb in a matter of seconds the shock that all other defeated candidates can digest over the course of maybe half a day. All those hours of impending doom were distilled down into those moments and writ large across her crestfallen face.

Electronic voting was a bit of a disaster, but one suspects that Owen’s fate added to the weight of the argument forwarded by those within the political bubble who were opposed to its introduction.

The other defeat occurred in 2007, and belonged to Michael McDowell, who was at the time Tánaiste and leader of the Progressive Democrats. He arrived at the count in late afternoon, hopped out of his car and at the entrance to the RDS declared that he was leaving politics.

This, while some of his colleagues were still fighting for survival through fifth, sixth and seventh counts.

McDowell had always been a figure to divide in politics, but his farewell was besmirched by jeering from some elements who had reserved particular ire for him while he was in power.

He didn’t deserve that, but as he spat out his farewell to politics, his face all but repeated the quote from a defeated US politician some 50 years ago. “The people have spoken. The bastards”.

So irrespective of the outcome today — and over the coming days — we should be grateful to one and all for putting their names forward to seek election.

No matter what has befallen politics over the last few years, the words of Winston Chruchill apply in these turbulent times as much as ever.

“Democracy,” he once declared, “is the worst form of government apart from all the others.”

Happy count.

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