From top: Opposition benches in Dáil Éireann; Derek Mooney
Who in their right mind would want to become a TD?
The pay is good, the perks are decent and the scope for promotion (career and ‘self’) is none too bad either, but can these incentives really outweigh the forfeiture of a private life, never mind the ongoing press, public and social media opprobrium whenever you express an opinion?
Shouldn’t politics be a vocation, not a career path?
The problem with that view is not just that it is naïve, it is that it simply won’t work. Try it and we end up with a Dáil full of only those who can only afford to be there by virtue of their profession, their families’ money or simple “pull” – by the way not all of them would be on the right, a fair few would also come from the comfortable left, but that’s just an aside.
So, recognising that we are in the real world, perhaps we should be looking more at how to make entry into politics less unattractive and encourage more people who would not just see it as a long-term career option, but rather as something to contribute to after they have done and achieved other things.
Billy Connolly used to say that “The desire to be a politician should be enough to ban you from ever becoming one”. He is right, but only in one narrow sense. Wanting power for the sake of having it should be disqualification, but wanting it so you can change things, whether that be how many street lights there are in your community cycle, how waste is managed or how the cost of housing is reduced – that should be encouraged.
One of the problems is that many of political parties still include obstacles and tests that deter all but the most ambitious and politically astute. There is value in these skills, but national politics needs others too: people with wider skill sets and experiences.
Politics is not well served when it full of neophytes who have spent plenty of time as parliamentary researchers and ministerial assistants but have no genuine experience of the real world.
This applies to both left and right. Politics needs more people who have built things from houses to computers to companies and fewer people who have made placards and organised protest marches.
This is one of the reasons we have political parties. The most crucial role of any party, after policy development, is candidate selection. Political parties are there to identify, encourage, resource and support new entrants – people who may not in other circumstances have considered or pursued politics. They are there to protect them and back when they come under attack and support their work by making policy expertise available.
It can and does work. After the 2011 election massacre, Fianna Fáil was left with a lot of vacancies for prospective TDs as it had a lot of constituencies with no sitting TDs and no seat blockers.
This was a major plus, it had the capacity to rebuild and renew with a massive intake of new talent. But it also had a big problem. On the negative side, it had a poll rating that would not encourage many to see it as offering a pathway to the Dáil.
Squaring this circle was no easy task. It had both to identify potential future TDs and to reassure them that it was a sufficiently viable vehicle to help them make it to the Dáil and contribute positively.
Much of that work happened locally. In many cases the local organisations and activists were ahead of their national counterparts. By the time of the 2014 local elections the party, nationally and locally was starting to synchronise both tasks: it had sufficiently recovered in the national polls to offer a credible vehicle and also had a slate of people with a variety of backgrounds to fast track into the Dáil.
Looking back, it now looks far more organised and structured that it probably was at the time. Building a mythology around what was done and how it was achieved risks missing the real and valuable lessons of what really happened. It also risks allowing a re-emergence of all the obstacles and hurdles of the past.
Though much of Fianna Fáil managed over the past five years was much by local action as by national design, it still offers a template for how other parties can and should encourage more new entrants.
But there is one big proviso, they must also realise that the work does not end when you bring in a few new TDs. If anything, that is when it really starts. TDs are not shrinking violets, but neither can they be allowed become punching bags for any group, whether in or outside the Dáil, who want to take politics out on to the street and then abrogate all responsibility for the consequences.
Every TD has an equal right to be heard inside and outside the Dáil. Being a Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour or Sinn Féin back bencher does not lessen or reduce their mandate and should not reduce their speaking rights. Political parties are not an impediment to political progress, they are the bedrock of it.
Everyone has a right to disagree and to do so robustly and loudly, but the “What the Parliament does, the street can undo” mantra of Solidarity-PBP cannot be allowed to stand. It is a pernicious attempt to discourage wider political engagement and involvement in the guise of opening it up to those approved by Solidarity-PBP.
It is joked that France has the only “tricameral system” in the world – the National Assembly, the Senate and the Street – but history and experience shows that the Street has always been the biggest hindrance to reforms.
It is yet another reason why political parties now must ensure that many people who should be considering entering politics are given the opportunities, supports and protections to do so.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney