28 June 2009

Leinster House as a political Theme Park

For the second time Leinster House (left), the Dublin seat of the Oireachtas - Ireland's parliament - has been turned into a political theme park this weekend.

After a trial run last summer, John O'Donoghue (photo below right), the Ceann Comhairle (Speaker of the Dáil), decided to turn the august halls of Irish power once again into a temporary political version of Disneyland for two hot days in late June.

8000 tickets, O'Donoghue stated in a rather pompous manner, "have been made available to members of the public" to visit Leinster House for the "Oireachtas Family Day". And they were apparently "booked up within 24 hours".

Who is the "Oireachtas Family"? Are we talking about the 166 TDs (members of the Dáil), 60 Senators and all their extended families and relatives? Perhaps the quite numerous - and usually unnamed - civil servants and other staff members who make the parliamentary machine work are also included with their families? That would easily make up 8000 people.

But no, John O'Donoghue said the "Family Day" - actually two days on Saturday and Sunday - was meant for "members of the public". In politico speak this means the plebs, the 'ordinary people', also referred to as 'the great unwashed'. In other words, people like you and me, who do not have the privileges and exorbitant incomes of professional politicians.

"Members of the public"!

I really hate this phrase with a vengeance. Better than any other it signifies the deep divide that exists between those in power and the rest of the nation. In the eyes of our politicians we are not more than "the public", the paying audience for their lavish freak show that masquerades as a parliament.

But then again, we are only ourselves to blame for that. After all, our politicians cannot just walk into Leinster House and take their well-upholstered seats. No, we - "the members of the public" - send them there when we vote for them (directly for the TDs, and indirectly through our local councillors for the Senators). So we are responsible for the bunch of wasters, clowns, ignorants and incompetents that populate Leinster House with our five-year-mandate.
If we cared for our country, its political stability and our future, we would elect better people to represent us in the Oireachtas.

But - for some reasons that have been a mystery to me all my life - we don't. We are so lazy and disinterested in politics that we keep electing the same kind of people - and often the very same people - again and again, no matter how badly they treat us and how incompetent they are in governing the country.

So we should not be surprised that they treat us with the contempt we deserve. They do award themselves enormous salaries, with lavish extra fees and 'expenses allowances' on top of their 'normal pay' and exorbitant pensions for their comfortable retirement, and we - the taxpayers - foot the bill. They give themselves extensive holidays - called recesses - which make teachers' holidays look short, and when they are actually sitting, they only work three days a week - from Tuesday to Thursday. The other four days of the week, a regular long weekend from Friday to Monday, are apparently needed "to look after the constituencies".

Ask yourself: When have you last seen a TD going around and 'looking after the constituency'? The only time they do that is during an election campaign, when they want and need our votes to retain their luxurious and easy lifestyle.
From time to time they appear at sports venues or at cultural events - always on free tickets - or they might open some new building, factory or shop. That's about it. The rest is really the longest regular weekend anyone can ever dream of. (Senators do not have constituencies, but enjoy the same three-day week and long weekend as TDs.)

No wonder then that these 226 people see themselves as a privileged elite and the rest of us as nothing more than their "public", the paying crowd that keeps them in luxury and is supposed to applaud their performances.

It is quite interesting that the Oireachtas' first "Family Day" last year coincided with increased anger in "the public" and a fall in the approval ratings of most leading politicians.
The announcement of the first "Family Day" was made just one day before the country voted on the Lisbon Treaty, and the event took place only two weeks after it had been defeated by a clear majority of the Irish electorate.

The organisers, and especially John O'Donoghue, made a big noise about the day (last year it was really only one day - Sunday, June 29th) and praised it already as a success two weeks before it actually happened. He even commissioned a special website to promote the "Family Day", and money was clearly thrown at it in bundles.

Besides all sorts of music, food and "street entertainment" one of the highlights of the day were "Tours of the Oireachtas". They were advertised on the official website with the statement that "for the first time, members of the public can visit both the Dáil and Seanad Chambers". Which, of course, is a blatant lie.

Anyone who has even the slightest bit of knowledge of our parliament knows that the sessions of Dáil and Seanad are held in public. Anyone who wishes to attend can do so and observe the proceedings from the visitors' gallery. Those who do that will have the added benefit that they actually see politicians in action, while all they see on the "Family Day" are the empty chambers of both houses of the Oireachtas. *

So, apart from empty debating chambers, what would be the 'attractions' of Leinster House on a "Family Day"?

Well, there is music - from traditional Irish to weird-looking and even weirder sounding African drummers whose understanding of Democracy matches about that of our TDs - and a number of food stalls. The odd professional juggler and clown is thrown in for good measure, and of course there cannot be any event in Ireland these days without the idiotic practice of face painting.
What is the point in getting acrylic paint smeared over one's face? I find it filthy, disgusting and unhealthy (as it can affect the skin and prevent proper perspiration). And if I had the power, I would make it illegal.

There is one other and indeed 'political' attraction: The re-enactment of famous speeches from the 90-year-long history of the Oireachtas.
Being myself a passionate public speaker (who has won speaking and debating medals in several countries for contributions in three languages and trained many people in the skill), this is the only element of the event I would be interested in. It would be educating - and perhaps even entertaining - to see and hear current politicians repeating the great speeches of the past.

How would the boorish Brian Cowen fare with a solemn oration of Eamon de Valera? Or meek and mild-mannered Enda Kenny with a fiery election rally address of Michael Collins?
Could Eamon Gilmore emulate the speeches of James Connolly, or Michael D. Higgins repeat the powerful words of the great trade union organiser James Larkin? I imagine that Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin might do rather well with the words of Sinn Fein's founder Arthur Griffith, but I could see neither Mary Coughlan nor Mary Hanafin re-enact the hot-tempered speeches of Countess Constance Markiewicz. Perhaps Mary Harney might give it a try...

But, sadly, we will see and hear none of the above. Most of our current TDs are truly abysmal speakers, and they know it. Sitting through several hours of debating in the Dáil can easily make one fall asleep (and TDs have been noticed for that), or lose the will to live. (The rhetoric quality in the Seanad is a bit better, but leaves also much room for improvement.)
So, instead of exposing themselves to "members of the public" as the uninspiring wafflers they are, the politicians hired a troupe of Dublin's trainee actors (fully qualified actors are probably too expensive these days) to perform selected pieces of vintage debates.

For the young thespians this was probably an interesting and valuable exercise (with a welcome extra income on top), but for the listening "public" it was rather disappointing. A great speech is not just a collection of sentences. The delivery is as important as the words are. And here the concept fell down. Even with the best of effort a young woman cannot produce the effect Michael Collins or James Connolly had with their speeches, and a young man is not able to bring across the special personality of Eamon de Valera. So the whole idea of reproducing famous speeches from the past - which is a good one in principle - was rather lost due to the weak performances.

There were some side shows that attracted limited interest from children, but nothing really that would make politics appear as more interesting or bring it closer to the people. A Dublin performer was advertised as "blending sophisticated humour with jaw dropping magic". Maybe Brian Cowen could learn a thing or two from him. But the Taoiseach was nowhere to be seen.

Perhaps he was advised to stay away, in order to avoid unfriendly acts from "members of the public". People in Dublin still remember Wicklow pensioner Gary Keogh and his eggs at the AGM of Allied Irish Bank... (see my entry of May 13th) Who knows how many angry Irishmen are out there with more eggs in their pockets?

For a moment I thought that Brian Cowen had - as he often does - ignored the advice given to him and was appearing in Leinster House after all. However, the man announced as "Ireland's best bilingual juggler" turned out to be not the Taoiseach, but one Johnny Phelan, apparently "the only Irish juggling act that is sponsored by the Arts Council".

Well, all you aspiring authors and struggling little theaters around the country who have been told that there is now no more financial support for you "because of budget cuts at the Arts Council", perhaps you should all become jugglers to be funded with taxpayers' money...

Ceann Comhairle John O'Donoghue, one of Fianna Fáil's most pig-headed old apparatchiks and a kind of political juggler himself, says that "the level of interest in the Family Day makes a clear statement that people do wish to connect with their parliament, their politicians and the political process".

Well, here is a great example of wishful thinking, if you ever need one.

About half of the people attending were political activists from various parties, who were there to show their party colours or to support a particular TD. There were some groups of old-age pensioners, Chinese students and African immigrants who had been brought in especially and on purpose, but they did neither fit in, nor did they know what to do or what the whole thing was about. They were sitting or standing around, quite forlorn and a bit puzzled. The old folks just sat there and stared into an empty distance, while the Chinese - always trying to be polite - smiled all the time and looked like a bunch of dolls from the wax museum. The Africans, with expressionless faces, concentrated on the food and stayed well away from the rest.

The Irish visitors were not excited either. One only had to look into their faces to see that they felt bewildered, and often quite bored. And there were also loads of very bored children, dragged along by their parents and wondering why they had not gone to the seaside instead. They were interested in the ice cream on offer, but not in politics or the parliament. And in fact, there was no parliament on offer anyway. The Houses of the Oireachtas are the people elected to them, not the building and two empty debating chambers.

To be fair, there were quite a few TDs and Senators present, trying to make the best of it. And John O'Donoghue was walking around pompously like a king, shaking graciously the hands of little children. (Could there be any connection with the fact that his home county Kerry is often referred to as "the kingdom"?)
But none of the political heavyweights bothered to attend. They had better things to do than meeting "members of the public" in a tacky little political Disneyland their 'home' had been turned into for the weekend.

I can understand why politicians are interested in polishing their image and getting 'closer to the people'. Turnouts in elections have been falling over years, and many Irish people - especially from the younger generations - have no interest in politics at all. Pop music, consumerism and the 24-hour entertainment culture are more attractive to them.
And the schools are not doing their job either, it appears.
"What county is he playing for, Dad" a little boy aged about ten asked his father when the name Michael Collins was mentioned by a Leinster House tour guide.
If this is the standard of knowledge these days, then I see not much of a future for Ireland.

In principle it is a good idea to bring the people and their parliament closer together. The better one understands the political system and the process of making decisions, the more one will appreciate freedom and Democracy. And one is also more likely to become actively involved in politics oneself.
But closing the gap between politicians and the general population will not be achieved through 'fun' and turning the parliament building into the country's largest fast food outlet for a weekend. Popcorn and ice cream are not political arguments, and no jazz band, magician or juggler** will increase the popularity and approval rates of our elected leaders.

Parliament is a serious place, and it should be taken seriously by everyone, especially those who are part of it.
By pretending for a weekend that Leinster House is just a happy little fun fair on Dublin's Kildare Street "the public" - and in particular the many children who were dragged into the experience - will get a completely wrong and counter-productive impression of it.

If one wants to popularise parliament, then the people need to see it at work and not when it is empty and shut down for the weekend (and only days away from another ludicrous three-month holiday).
People should be encouraged and invited to attend regular sessions and debates, and have the opportunity to meet their local TDs (regardless of party) over a cup of tea afterwards.
And on their free days - like Mondays or Fridays - TDs should visit schools in their constituency and chair organised debates on various subjects, political and non-political.

There should also be a lot more transparency, which could begin with politicians using language everyone understands. Most bills passed into law by the Oireachtas are written in an antiquated and artificially complicated language that no-one ever speaks in daily life. This so-called 'legal English' has only one purpose: To keep the vast majority of people in hock to the members of the legal profession, who charge hefty fees for their services.

And - surprise, surprise - many of our TDs have been trained as lawyers before they entered politics. This self-serving circle neeeds to be broken, and politicians need to have experience of real life before they get elected to parliament. Only then will they have a chance to be closer to the electorate. It can be done, and it would be well worth doing.

The current economic crisis is a heavy burden on most of us, but it also opens opportunities for fundamental changes that no-one would even dare to contemplate during 'good' times. Here lies the chance for the whole nation, and in particular for our politicians. Get things right this time, by making proper changes, and popularity will come along for free.

There is no need - and no demand - for a fun fair in and around Leinster House once a year. The money spent on it could be used much more sensibly, and with much better results. An open and transparent parliament, whose members are realistic and approachable, while sharing the same burden we all have to carry, would do wonders for the popularity of the Oireachtas.

It would also help to maintain the dignity of the Ceann Comhairle. Prancing around like 'King Puck' (of the well-known annual fair in his home county Kerry), while grinning all the time like the proverbial gingerbread horse is not quite the image one would like to have of the man who presides over the sessions of the Dáil. He is supposed to be the primus inter pares (first among equals), and not the biggest bear with little brains amongst 166 Poohs.

The golden rule of common sense should also be applied to the Houses of the Oireachtas: Think before you act; and when it comes to 'entertaining the people', less is often more. (I will send a copy of this entry to John O'Donoghue, and it will be interesting to see if he is able to listen, learn and change.)
To the vast majority of Irish people who have not been at the "Family Day" at Leinster House I can only say: Well done. You were wise to stay away and have certainly not missed anything. It was neither fun, nor interesting or inspiring. It was just another example how our incompetent politicians can make a mess of everything they touch.

The Emerald Islander

** On top of seeing nothing but two empty debating chambers (which one can see on television several times a week) and a few equally empty corridors connecting them, the people who put themselves through this are also herded like cattle by the Leinster House staff and have to queu - some for hours - to qualify for this 'rare privilege'.
And to avoid any misunderstanding, the rules are laid out plainly on the official Oireachtas website:
"Tours of Leinster House will be available on a first come first served basis with access for 1500 people approx. Visitors interested in taking the tour are advised that on arrival they should go directly to the start of tour location at the Leinster House entrance to ensure that they are accommodated."
Well, if this is an "open approach" to make the Oireachtas "more transparent", then my name is Harun al-Rashid!
It looks and sounds a lot more like the Victorian mindset of our former colonial masters, which has somehow survived for 90 years in the hearts and minds of our politicial elite and - even more so - our civil service and legal profession. If it were not so serious, one might mistake it for the hilarious attempt of making a practical joke.

** I still cannot get over the job title "Ireland's best bilingual juggler". Juggling requires a combination of physical and technical skills and has nothing to do with language. So what is the point of making such a distinction? If I would have the skills to juggle, would I be 'Ireland's best trilingual juggler'? Where does it end? It makes no sense.
If he is a good juggler, then that is reputation enough. And if he is not, his ability to speak Irish will be of no help at all.
By the way, how many bilingual jugglers are there in Ireland? Nobody seems to know. So who made the stupid judgement on Mr. Phelan? Maybe he is the only one, which would make it easy to be the best.
The whole way of this promotion shows the insular narrow-mindedness of many Irish people and the idiotic way we - and in particular semi-state bodies and their advertisement agencies - look at ourselves. It is the same mentality that makes us concentrate on sports no-one else in the world plays, and that sent a turkey puppet as our official entry to the Eurovision song contest. Some of us might well find it 'funny', but they will be alone with this. Certain forms of humour simply don't travel well.
It might be helpful if someone would also tell the people in the Arts Council, and in the many other semi-state bodies and organisations, that we have reached the 21st century and that paddy-whacking leprechauns have long passed their sell-by date.


Anonymous said...

I was there, too, and you are absolutely right: It was a complete waste of time (and most likely also a big waste of money). Aren't we supposed to be in a recession and short of money in all departments? So why spend money on something as ludicrous as this little fun fair in Kildare St.?
I think our politicians have really lost the plot completely, and that goes for government and opposition parties in equal measure. We need a general election, and fast, so we can get rid of these clowns for good and - maybe - establish a decent and working parliament after 90 years of nepotism, improvisation, incompetence and corruption.

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