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Sunday 23 November 2008

We get the leaders we deserve, after all 

Voters still seem to want politicians who give priority to the constituency, Ruth Dudley Edwards

IT'S NO use blaming the Government for helping get us into this mess or for being clueless about how to get us out of it. As the fella said, "You get the government you deserve", which in our case is one composed of lawyers, teachers and career politicians who talk the talk but clearly can't walk the walk.

What kind of people should we ideally have in the Cabinet? Or in the Dail, for that matter, for that's where ministers come from? (If we had a sane system, the Senate could provide talent for government too, but we don't, which is why it is mainly a playground for those with Dail ambitions.)

I think, if pushed to think about it, the average voter would probably agree that in theory TDs should be a creative mix of people who have worked at home and abroad in as wide a range of jobs as possible.

I'd like entrepreneurs and innovators and one or two hot-shot accountants, economists, managers and bankers - yes, bankers - who have worked in industry and understand the nuts and bolts of the global economy.

I'd like farmers, fishermen, shopkeepers, garage-owners, publicans, big and small, who could speak with authority about how laws that are fine in theory work in practice, as well as labourers and cleaners and shelf-fillers.

There would be room for a cross-section of ex-public servants from all ranks, through clerks and nurses and police and soldiers to county managers. Oh, and the odd scientist might be handy, along with a moral philosopher, an investigative journalist who had explored the sewers of our urban wastelands, and a historian of the kind who - as John A Murphy demonstrated with such distinction in the Senate - can clarify our present by reference to our past. Not to speak of a jester who could cut everyone down to size.

We all subscribe unthinkingly these days to Abraham Lincoln's dictum that government should be run "by the people, for the people". So how is it that in fact it's run by the narrowest of narrow elites who know of little beyond the parish pump, the Four Courts, a schoolroom and the confines of Dail Eireann?

Taoisech Brian Cowen read law at UCD, qualified as a solicitor and inherited his father's seat at 24; Brian Lenihan (Finance), after Trinity and Cambridge became a barrister, and inherited his father's seat at 37; Dermot Ahern (Justice), became a solicitor after UCD and was a county councillor at 24, a TD at 32; after UCD, Willie O'Dea (Defence) was simultaneously a barrister, accountant, lecturer and county councillor until becoming a TD at 29.

Micheal Martin (Foreign Affairs) taught for a year after UCC, was a city councillor at 25 and a TD at 29; Mary Hanafin (Social and Family Affairs) became a secondary school teacher after St Patrick's Maynooth, a member of the Fianna Fail national executive at 21, a city councillor at 26 and a TD at 38; after UCD, Noel Dempsey (Transport) was a careers guidance teacher who became a country councillor at 24 and a TD ten years later; John Gormley (Environment), after UCD and the University of Freiburg ran a language academy, became involved in Greenery and thence a city councillor at 32 and a TD at 38.

Then there are the career politicians: Mary Coughlan (Tanaiste), who after UCD was momentarily a social worker who became a TD at 21; Mary Harney (Health), who after Trinity became a senator at 24, a county councillor at 26 and a TD at 28; and Brendan Smith (Agriculture),who after UCD became a special adviser to John Wilson TD until becoming a TD himself at 45.

The three exceptions are Martin Cullen (Arts), who was a sales manager for a wine company until becoming a TD at 32; Eamon 0 Cuiv (Community), who after UCD was manager of Gaeltacht Co-operative until becoming a Senator at 38; and Eamon Ryan (Communications), the only entrepreneur in the Cabinet, who after working in London set up the successful lrish Cycling Safaris and became a city councillor at 35 and a TD at 41.

However clever and industrious all these politicians may be, how in hell can we expect them to run an economy battered by a global crisis?

Yet we have no right to blame them for becoming politicians without first learning something about life. As Shakespeare would have pointed out, the fault, dear electors, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. The Irish voter apparently still wants politicians who give priority to constituency business.

To get into the Dail, it helps to be able to cultivate constituencies by having flexible hours (like lawyers) and, like teachers, long holidays. What's more, both lawyers and teachers can go straight back to work if chucked out of power. Lawyers have something else going for them: few have inhibitions about defending the indefensible - a very handy quality in a minister. As for teachers, they are adept at telling their inferiors how to behave.

So we have an insuIar Cabinet drawn from a tiny pool of talent, and it is what we deserve. Ob, well, I suppose it's an improvement on the days when a murder or two under your belt was seen as a prerequisite to high office.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards