DEAR Government Backbencher, 2012 wasn’t exactly the best year of your life, was it?
Mary Harney said the worst day in Government beat the best day in opposition, but that’s if you’re a minister. Currently, being an opposition backbencher is a better option than at almost any time in the past 50 years. There’s so few of them, it’s easy to shine, whether in a committee or in quotations in newspaper reports.
Over on your side of the Dáil, in sharp contrast, so many of you mill around that being the shining exception is enormously difficult. A quick look at coverage for the last year shows that, if you’re a backbench member of this huge majority Government, the way to stick out is either by saying something you really shouldn’t have said or by ending up in court for doing something you really shouldn’t have done. The third way is unintended low comedy. You can get yourself some transient headlines if you’re prepared to take on the Cabinet with some deeply held theory of your own, or be the predictable headbanger on any controversial issue.
You haven’t done that. You’ve been loyal, diligent, discreet. And in bitter moments, you wonder if those traits are precisely what lets the frontbenchers ignore you and what might allow the Taoiseach forget you, when it comes to a re-shuffle and possible promotion. You still pride yourself on not sharing those bitter moments with the Moan Brigade; the cohort within your own party who are never satisfied, never done with giving out about the party powers that be. Someone warned you about them before you were a wet week in the House, naming the ones you knew from way back were whingers, but naming a few others that surprised you too. Not that you let on to the surprise. You can’t afford to look naïve, even if you’re new.
But the early days were still great. Ah, they were, all the same, particularly if this was your first time to be elected. Bliss it was, those days, to be alive, but to be in Government was very heaven… Your lot were clean. Innocent of wrongdoing. Better still, they’d warned, repeatedly, about what was going to happen, and now it had. With bells on. Tolling bells.
The entire nation knew how bad things were, and knew, also, that the Coalition was going to have to take tough decisions. That phrase rolled around the inside of your skull like a bit of a song. Tough decisions. If yours was a Labour skull, it was determined to make sure that those tough decisions didn’t affect the people you cared most about — the people already screwed by life, circumstances and the system. If yours was a Fine Gael skull, it was determined that whatever tough decisions were made were going to be fair.
You were astonished at how quickly Us and Them broke out. Us was where you thought you’d be. Them was where you all too quickly found yourself. Us was the Cabinet. Them was the backbenchers. You went to the Cabinet with the legitimate exceptions applying to your constituents and found yourself facing explanations you couldn’t bring back to those constituents. That was when you learned that sometimes the truth doesn’t set you free and that at any given time in Irish life, certain truths are unsayable.
Then, as time went on, cabinet members got busier and less willing to listen. They were Us. You were Them.
Before the election, you liked the reflection of yourself that came back from media, to the extent that you were reflected at all. But that changed, too. Everything you said, every penny you spent was suddenly suspect. Baffled, you wanted to say “But I’m one of the good guys, don’t you understand?” Because you’ve always been interested in politics, you have a long memory, and you figured the public and the press would have long memories, too. It came as a shock when they told you they were tired of you telling them Fianna Fáil had caused the meltdown. It frazzled your brain when they suggested you should’ve fixed the situation by now and that you were just hiding behind excuses. Excuses?
Now, the reflection of yourself coming back from constituents and media was negative. Media wanted to know you only if you knew something, and you knew nothing. Constituents compared you with the more principled members of your party who had had the grace to resign. You instinctively put inverted commas around “principled” and “grace”, but most of the time, you didn’t articulate what was in your mind. Which was that the real courage was being shown by you, not the ones who threw in the towel. Except that you didn’t really believe it. You didn’t, let’s be honest, know what to believe any more, and it was no consolation for the older brigade to tell you they’d seen it all before. You began to dread contact from your local media and dread, even more, what would be on your smartphone. When the orchestrated hundreds of emails began to flood in before Christmas about abortion legislation, each demanding that you nail your colours to the mast, right this minute, you began to doubt your colours and wonder where the mast was.
You never had a moment to yourself. President Obama has seen three newly released films in the past three months. Have you? Didn’t think so. Quite apart from signing in every workday and being contacted night, noon and morning, your diary filled with times and places and obligations. Even though you knew someone at a local event would give out to you over something you couldn’t have changed, you felt you had to go to the event anyway, half out of duty, half out of fear that the one coming up behind you in the constituency would be at it and would make you look bad. Every phonecall, text, email, and letter seemed equally important and equally pointless.
THEN there’s the isolation. Enda Kenny once described Bertie Ahern as “a sociable loner”, and maybe that’s why Ahern was so successful for so long. Political life is about having many colleagues but few friends. It’s filled with people and then you’re on your own with your fears, your feelings of fear and disappointment and dread. Nobody’s minding you.
Well, you know something, Sunshine? You’d better mind yourself in 2013. Stop hanging around with the people who fuel your fear. Stop smoking, if you do, and drink less, if you do. Prioritise and put those who love you top of the list.
Your task is impossible, so acknowledge that and get on with it. Your job is to change things for the better. Where and when you can. And don’t start small, this year. How about making Ireland the world leader with legislation preventing anonymous social media destruction of backbenchers and other human beings? Impossible? Yes. But worth trying.
And when you succeed, call it the McEntee Law.
Good luck. Terry
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