Punishing Political Mistakes


From top: Golfgate casualty, Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen, Labour Party leader Alan Kelly maskless on the Luas and anti-gay Hungarian MP Jozsef Szajer, who was involved in a gay orgy. Heber Rowan

Let’s discuss making mistakes in politics, how it matters and why we should consider approaching mistakes differently.

On the dating site OkCupid there are many thousands of questions they ask to build up your dating profile. Among the answers to one about doing something naughty is the answer, ‘no thanks I might want to run for office one day’. There is a reason most would avoid such a question entirely. This is not just a reflection on dating or politics but on society as a whole.

It is argued that politics is the enterprise of leadership. Inspiring others to particular points of view and working hard for causes that they believe in. We like to believe that the leaders we choose mirror our best qualities, that higher moral standards are taken by them.

Sometimes that happens and we all collectively benefit from the wisdom imparted onto us all by their leadership for generations to come. That matters. Fundamentally, when we elect others to positions of power, we do so because they represent our interests because they say what we want them to say and indeed: do.

These things matter for the world. They matter in terms of what we view as not only acceptable but celebratory to the echelons of power. They are people at the end of the day. People with families, friends and personal lives of their own. Some new politicians complain that as soon as they get elected, they become public property. Called up by the frustrated, angry and desperate constituents at all hours of the day. It’s a hard job no doubt.

What matters is that when their personal lives end up becoming their public lives as well, there are problems. Sex scandals in American politics are the classic ‘go-to’ to illustrate this among the many salacious examples of impropriety that there can be. While in French politics, in particular, no one cares.

As an example in Irish politics, you can be imprisoned for up to six months before you are disqualified from holding office. Other than that, bankruptcy is the only thing that legally removes a politician from their seat or prevents them from getting elected in the first place. Correct me if I’m wrong on that. The standards in many different countries differ but the general aspect of it all is that the public gets to decide what is permissible and what is not.

The questions we ask ourselves sometimes looking at a ballot paper are along the lines of ‘do I care about what personal stuff went on with them when in the end, they served my interests?’ or ‘this one broke the law, should I care?’.

Elections are snapshots in time of the value statements of the body politic. Sometimes candidates who value particular social values get highly regarded over others but then in others, voters act according to their interests. Do they see their local area served in the ways they want? Do they get ‘the job done’? It’s hard when dreams, of course, face up the grim realities of compromise and horse-trading. Not all can be done, though some things can at least.

The issue at the heart of it all does a scandal in the media go on long enough for people to have their belief in the competency of the party collectively or politician individually to do their job, harmed. This matters.

This year amid all of the many scandals about politicians breaking COVID-19 rules and social restrictions in at minor ways or major ways. The right wing Hungarian MEP found in a sex party is a particularly extraordinary example of such mistakes… Political hypocrisy has a power to get us filled righteous anger or schadenfreude demanding retribution.

Some politicians this year clearly took a long time in realising that in fact, they weren’t indispensable or politically free from career-ending opprobrium. That could be argued to not only be a fault of their egos but a deep-seated fear of admitting that they made a mistake. This is because often in politics we are unforgiving as an electorate and as a society about those who say ‘I screwed up, I was wrong’.

Policy failures in particular are arguably more consequential than any personal impropriety like an extra-marital affair. The Irish banking guarantee of 2008 is an example of where politicians had to admit afterwards, that they got it wrong. That they made a mistake in their leadership that had negative consequences. It is a hard thing to reconcile with the cut and thrust of adversarial politics. We all make mistakes and even how we tell ourselves how we came to make those mistakes…

What matters going forward, is how we redefine the appropriate level of political sanction to give a politician in the court of public opinion. Resignations from office are sometimes too much and perhaps not proportionate.

There are many options on an informal table of political punishments to make, deductions from pay, limitations on speaking times in parliament are just some.

The courts and the existing body laws will remain to punish major breaches of the law of course, but the public often wants their ‘pound of flesh’ in the form of a resignation. So again, how could we redefine political punishments in a way that’s proportionate and fair?

What do you think would be appropriate?

How might we bring in a type of ‘book of quantum’ to provide for some level of political consequence for screw-ups? Please leave your comments and suggests below, I’d be confident that the matter will be discussed in the coming year.

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.


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4 thoughts on “Punishing Political Mistakes

  1. johnny

    ….great read but i think the laws were changed in 2014 via amendments to the Electoral Act,which removed bankruptcy as a disqualification from election to (and membership of) the Dáil and the European Parliament.

    1. V AKA Frilly Keane

      You’re right Johnny – brought in to line up in sync with the Insolvency Acts and amended Bankruptcy Acts – 2014

      A Bankrupt or a discharged Bankrupt is perfectly entitled to run for public office.

      There’s very little they can’t do tbh

      Restrictions in the main tend to be down to different Professional Bodies – particularly those that require handling Client’s Money ie A Solicitor in Practice (they now tend to be supervised over their term)
      Whereas there is nothing stopping a Barrister – or even a Judge
      As they don’t handle client funds

      Also Board Directors – and appointments at Governance levels. They have to stand down for the term of the Bankruptcy. But can rejoin – as long as the Bankruptcy is declared on the Fitness & Probity docs etc
      Assuming the organisation maintains that sort of Compliance standard.
      You know yourself the organisations that do, that have to
      And those that couldn’t give a ( ̄ヘ ̄;)

      Also borrowing money – that comes with additional restrictions and clauses, and declarations.

      Restrictions and barriers all tend to be Fiduciary and Probitive, general transparency stuff.

      It was well publicised at the time as there were a number of high profile Bankrupts, former Bankrupts and Petitions going back and forth. Paps n’all every Monday morning there for a few years.

      Tis all pretty dreary now.

  2. Gabby

    The 11th commandment is Thou shalt not be Found Out. Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

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