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I saw a Twitter message today that got me thinking. The tweet went along the lines of that if your kid wanted to be a politician you must do everything in your power to dissuade them. You should bribe them out of it if necessary. I can understand where the writer is coming from. Politics is a rough world. It’s a place where lofty ideals often tarnish and shatter in the rough and tumble of power games, bargaining and compromise. The bruising experience of politics leaves many people disillusioned and cynical. It shouldn’t be like this, but it is.
Nevertheless we must pause to consider where we are. We have schools. We have hospitals. We have fire stations and a police force. We eat food and drink water that, most of the time, won’t make us sick. We have rights. We can go to court to protect those rights. We have the right of assembly, press freedom and an electoral system where the powerful have to submit themselves to the wrath of the people who put them there every few years.
We have abolished slavery. We no longer have capital punishment or corporal punishment. Torture, child labour and animal abuse are proscribed. The voices of women, children, homosexuals, immigrants, atheists, the poor and other marginalised people can no longer be ignored. The society we have today is in many, many respects better than the world our grandparents and their grandparents were born into.
And who, in the end, made it happen? Politicians.
It was politicians who gave people their rights to be heard. It was politicians who argued for child welfare and against slavery. It was politicians who faced tyrannies down and protected our democratic freedoms. It was politicians who wrote the reforms, signed the laws and brought and end to wars. Our society is what it is today because of the work of politicians from our past.
Not all politicians are perfect. Some, indeed, have set back the march of progress and greater freedoms. Many others have little to show for their years of service other than a fat bank account. Yet, some politicians have made a positive difference and those differences have created the society that we have today. The story presented is not an altogether gloomy one.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Society is far from perfect. We still have crime, war, bad health, unnecessary suffering, discrimination, hatred, environmental damage and unconscionable injustice. We have problems in our country that are crying out to be solved. These problems require people of vision. They require people who can look beyond the grubby compromises and roadblocks. They require people who are willing to dedicate their lives to an ideal, mindful that failure awaits at every turn.
In politics, it is not years that make the difference, but decades. We need a cadre of people who are willing to dedicate their lives for a vision. Despite our concerns and our cynicism, we should encourage the most motivated of the upcoming generation to become politicians.
Like many people, I was stuck to my computer on Friday as the news about Hosni Mubarak’s departure from the political stage was announced in Cairo.
The Egyptian protestors deserve worldwide acclaim by the way they conducted themselves. Some have said they deserve a Nobel Prize, and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s rare enough to see those qualities we all aspire to on display: courage, dignity, resilience, the refusal to stay silent in the face of injustice and a single-minded yearning for the freedoms many of us take for granted.
Yesterday, the young people of Egypt gave the world a timely reminder that they are not so different to the rest of us. At the core, they want the same things as us, and who are we to tell them they can’t have them, purely as a result of an accident of birth?
This is the beauty of democracy. Although it’s no panacea: corruption, economic collapse, inequality and injustice do not respect political forms; it nevertheless gives people a say in the way their country is run, it entitles them to have their say, no matter how unpalatable the message, and it keeps would-be autocrats at bay. It demands that bloodless coups – free elections – become part of the woodwork, so that the powerful can never outstay their welcome. To our great shame, we in the democratised lands have looked blithely askance when questioning why it shouldn’t be available to everyone in the world, not just in the so-called West. Wasn’t it from similar tyrannies that many of our own democracies originated?
It is important for us all that the Egyptians are given our full support as they transition to democracy. The same is true for Tunisia and the other soon-to-be-freed nations of the Middle East and North Africa. History is slowly moving our world in the direction of democratic freedom for all.
Conor Lenihan, junior minister for Education and Science in the Irish government, must be reeling from the storm he found himself in yesterday. After accepting an invitation to launch a book debunking Evolutionary Theory, he was lampooned and ridiculed with a ferocity I have rarely seen on the Internet. Here are a selection of the comments on Twitter.
“Maybe the author told Conor that it was a book about Job Creationism.”
“Ye Minifter for ye Sciencef of ye Kingdom of Prefter John sendf salutationf&wishef of good health to ye Minifter for Alchemy, Mr Lennyhan.”
“Conor Lenihan may be late for Wednesday’s book launch as he’ll be trying to rake the moon out of the pond with a hoe.”
And these are just the nice ones.
Lenihan says that he is a friend of the author, that he was attending the book launch in a personal capacity and that doing this for constituents is something public representatives often do. (The author’s website advertised his presence as Junior Minister of Education – this was later changed).
Late last night, the author withdrew his invitation, but you would wonder how the minister is feeling today. If he is feeling wronged, that he was subjected to an attack by the media and the intelligensia, he is missing the point. The reason he got such a strong reaction is because of his cluenessness on this issue. He can no more claim “personal capacity” than if he was attending a UKIP friend’s campaign launch at the launch of the Lisbon referendum. On one hand, we have a government that supports the advancement of science, but on the other hand we have a minister tacitly supporting a book which, no matter which way you cut it, is vehemently anti-science right from page 1. The optics here are terrible. Evolution is one of the strongest theories in science, backed up by over a century of solid evidence, and fundamental to diverse studies such as biology, medicine, genetics and geology. Even someone with a rudimentary understanding of science would understand this. Giving a platform to a man whose only argument is “I am too ignorant to understand it, therefore it cannot be true” is just mind-blowing. Whether he realises it or not, it is very embarrassing for our country’s image abroad, not to mention to him personally.
Maybe, Minister, it’s time you stepped down from your position, took some time to read a few books and not just those with big coloured pictures on them.
The wonder of Twitter. I’m 7,000 km from Ireland at the moment and yet I probably heard the announcement about George Lee, leaving the Irish parliament faster than many of my compatriots. The excitement that this generated was tantamount to an explosion going off at the heart of the Irish political system. It causes no end of problems for Fine Gael, the largest opposition party in the state, and it calls into question the system’s ability to attract the brightest and best the country has to offer.
Successful politicians are grafters. They have an innate instinct for saying the right things to the right people. They have thick skins and they are comfortable in the heat of battle. Most of all, they will do everything possible to keep their constituents happy, helping them to sort out problems with leaking drains and noisy neighbours. They play an uneasy game, always attempting to balance their own needs for power and influence with the concerns of those who elected them. The longest lived politicians are not, perhaps, the best and the brightest, nor the most passionate about leadership and change, but those who know how to play the game the best. The result is a system where the best way to be become the leader is to be born into the right family, and to learn the craft at an early age.
So it is with most occupations in life, professional and amateur. There are rules, both overt and covert. You play them well, you win. You don’t need to be the best or the most able, just particularly well adapted to the rules of the system.
George was well adapted to the rules of journalism. He is an acute observer of politics and statehood, but it doesn’t seem as if the game of politics played to his strengths all that much. It’s a pity, because he clearly had a lot to say. He had passion and a desire for change. He was bright and articulate and he clearly has the abilities of a leader, as many listen keenly to what he has to say.
So we may complain about our politicians, but in reality they are normally only a product of the system that creates them. We can change the leadership or replace the government, but unless that system itself is changed, nothing of substance will happen.
Micheal Martin, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, opposing attempts by Islamic States to make defamation of religion a crime at UN level, 2009:
“We believe that the concept of defamation of religion is not consistent with the promotion and protection of human rights. It can be used to justify arbitrary limitations on, or the denial of, freedom of expression. Indeed, Ireland considers that freedom of expression is a key and inherent element in the manifestation of freedom of thought and conscience and as such is complementary to freedom of religion or belief.”
Just months after Minister Martin made this comment, his colleague Dermot Ahern introduced Ireland’s new blasphemy law.
The Irish Minister for Transport, Mr. Noel Dempsey, announced yesterday that he is determined to press ahead with tough new bullshit limits in the face of a backbench revolt.
Mr Dempsey, who works every second night as the President of Russia, announced that new gulags would be built in Siberia for public personalities who were caught with over 5 miligrams of bullshit in their public utterances. Up to now, the limit has been set at 8 miligrams, which is far higher than all other EU countries excluding the UK.
At a party meeting last week, representatives within Dempsey’s own party forcefully expressed their opposition to this move. Some are threatening to vote against the legislation when it appears before parliament. Mattie McGrath, from Tipperary, said that bullshit could relax jumpy parliamentarians and that he was partial to a bit of bullshit himself on occasion to make any of his public utterances even halfway coherent.
The most vociferous comments came from Jackie Healy-Rae in Kerry, who said that high levels of bullshit should be a mandatory requirement for all parliamentarians. “I’ve often used plenty of bullshit in my speeches, and it never did me a bit of harm”. He cites former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, “who was well known to use 90 miligrams of bullshit any chance he could get, and did they lock him up for it? Not a chance.”
Sources believe that Minister Dempsey has a difficult road ahead of him. According to one source, the legislation is dead at the starting blocks. “The level of bullshit in public use these days is so bad that it won’t happen without massive investment in Garda resources”, she said. “Gardai will need to invest in state of the art bullshit detectors while the number of random bullshit tests will need to be doubled, or even tripled. Who is going to pay for that?”. It currently believed that the new limits won’t become law before 2011.
The minister himself was unable for comment this morning. He was was in Vladivostok opening a new missile defense installation.
Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event I remember as if it were yesterday. The fall of the Berlin Wall was the high point of an astonishing period in world history, beginning with the fall of the Polish government in June 1989 and culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the space of a few months, the world changed utterly. The message, at least for a while, was one of hope: that repressive regimes can come to an end when the conditions are right.
Ten years before this, another political change took place in Iran, when the Ayatollah Khomeini wrested power from the Shah in a popular uprising that swept the nation. Khomeini created an Islamic Republic, supposedly freeing the country from the yoke of dictatorship and setting up a kind of utopia on Earth along Islamic principles. This new Iranian state quickly revealed itself to be just another tawdry dictatorship in clerical disguise, and now the youth of Iran are fighting for the same freedoms as their parents, thirty years ago. Some are paying with their lives.
If history is any guide, rotten regimes often succumb eventually to a combination of relentless external and internal pressures. These pressures do not need to be violent, but they do need to be sustained. We can only hope that this will be soon be the fate of the current Iranian republic.
The Irish government over the past 10 years has been a disaster. I hate their arrogance. I hate the fact that we are all going to have to pay through the nose because of their blithe mismanagement of the economy. I wish some of them could see jail time, convicted of the felony of driving a country while hopelessly drunk on power. I hope they are obliterated in the next election. There. I’m glad I got that off my chest.
Nevertheless, I will vote Yes in the Lisbon Referendum. One of the many reasons why I will be voting Yes is precisely because our government were so incompetent.
If we have learned anything in the past two years, it is that government arrogance can lead to extraordinarily bad decisions. During the ‘good times’ it was incapable of listening to good advice, of taking the foot off the pedal, of acting in the best interest of its citizens. It paid lip service to the longer term needs of its people while it cosied up to the property developers and bankers. Cautionary warnings from the EU were treated with disdain. The perceived “deadweight” of the EU resulted in a lack of urgency defending the first Lisbon referendum against its critics. These chickens came home to roost when this referendum was comprehensively defeated in 2008. Perhaps we need to take take the views of our European partners a bit more seriously in future.
There is an assumption that an Ireland, free from EU interference, could make better decisions, but where is the evidence for this? Before the EU came into being, Ireland was a bloody awful place – conservative, illiberal and pandering to the needs of the well-heeled few. When we did eventually join, these same self-interested forces within our own country fought tooth and nail to prevent even the most basic social and environmental reforms to take place. Without European influence, there would be no such thing as a minimum wage. Our environmental record would be disastrous. Homosexuality and condoms might still be on the banned list. If there is one big achievement of Europe, it is that it dragged this country kicking and screaming into the modern world. I am proud of my country but I don’t think I would be quite so proud of the place if the basic reforms that came with EU membership had not happened during my lifetime.
Another reason I am voting Yes is because I don’t see how giving our government a bloody nose will benefit any of us in the long term. It’s one thing to hurt the government if you see a benefit in doing so, but it is quite another thing if the outcome is a vote for economic meltdown. The outcome of Lisbon is long-term and will transcend many governments in the coming decades. If you have a problem with the government, the place to make that dissatisfaction clear is in the polling booth at the next General Election, not in the referendum, where a negative result will have lasting impacts on our economy.
So for those still thinking of voting No just to give the government a kicking, here’s a handy chart..