Sunday, November 26, 2006

All in the family

NEPOTISM, n. Appointing your grandmother to office for the good of the party.

From The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce.

Something which has always struck me as odd about the Irish political system is the way in which seats in the Dáil often seem to be passed on in families like some weird recessive gene.

I did a bit of research recently and discovered that of the current 166 sitting above in the Oireachtas, over 20 percent of them (that's 35 for you non-arithmeticians) had been preceded in the house by a close relative of some sort or, like our own dear Taoiseach, had a sibling or other close relative working in the (family) business of state. Of that 35, at least 17 appeared to have directly inherited their seat from an immediate family member. And that's just Dáil Éireann. I didn't look at the Senate or the European Parliament.

As a page devoted to the topic on wikipedia tactfully puts it: 'There is a tradition in Irish politics of having family members suceed each other in the same parliamentary seat.' As we all know, I hope, just because something is a tradition, it doesn't make it right.

Moreover, it is a tradition that appears to be set to extend itself for another generation and beyond, if the biographies of the current Dáil Éireann crowd can be relied on (Not always a sure thing, just ask Bertie about his academic qualifications, for example). I stopped counting after I ran out of fingers, toes and other numberable body parts, but a recurring phrase in many of their bios seemed to be 'XXX'S son/daughter/younger brother serves on Dublin/Cork/Limerick/Galway Council'. Which it seems to me is code for 'will inherit the seat when the old man buys the farm/moves up to the Senate/gets a nice little earner in the EU'.

Now I don't know about you, but I would find such a high proportion of legacies in any democratic society to be something of a worry, but in Ireland it makes me very nervous indeed. Apart from serious stuff about the formation of oligarchies which stifle the democratic process and concentrate power and influence in the hands of a ruling elite, the potential conflicts of interest that can arise and the possibility of producing a lineage like that of the Bush family, what really scares the bejabbers out of me is that the institution that appears to be producing a significant proportion our political masters is the Irish family.

You don't need to be a social historian or a sociologist to know that the Irish family is a unique class of a beast. Ask anyone who ever grew up in one. A product of the Great Hunger and a particularly rigourous form of 19th Century European Catholicism, its principal products over the past 150 years have been emigrants, schizophrenics, priests, parochialism and a brand of internecine disharmony unparalled for its stubborn persistence. It is not an institution I for one would rely on to produce politicians of vision and statesmanlike abilities.

In other countries, the selection of political representatives is usually a quite rigorous process involving committees and panels and the assessment of candidates' character and abilities. In Ireland the process of selection probably goes on like this (With apologies to Synge and Keane):-

Interior night, a peasant cottage somewhere in rural Ireland. Dan 'the Bull' Aherne sits at a scrubbed pine kitchen table sipping tea loudly from a chipped enamel mug. He is a large man with a thick white beard and a fine mane of silver hair. Though old his eyes have lost none of their peasant craftiness and are set deep in his weather beaten face. Behind him, his wife, a small women of middle years attends a large pan simmering on the kitchen range.

BULL: What's to become of that son of ours, that Bertie? Tis a hard story the way I'm left to-day, when it was I did tend him from his hour of birth, and he a dunce never reached his second book, the way he'd come from school, many's the day, with his legs lamed under him, and he blackened with his beatings like a tinker's ass.

The woman ignores him and continues to stir the contents of the pot on the range

BULL: The wrack and ruin of three score years; and it's a terror to live that length, I tell you, and to have a son going to the dogs against you, and you wore out scolding him, and skelping him, and God knows what. I never till this
day confused that dribbling idiot with a likely man. I'm destroyed surely.

The silence from the kitchen range continues, broken only by the sound of spoon against pot

BULL: [turning on the silent woman with a roar of rage.] -- Didn't you hear me say he was the fool of men, the way from this out he'll know the orphan's lot. He has me killed, so he does. Why couldn't he be like his brothers and sisters, keeping the slates on the roof with the remittance money from Amerikay? Married into land in the town below or doling out the penances to the sinners above in Dublin? What's to become of him and us. I'll tell ye now, woman, 'twas cursed the day we sent that eejit Noel off to the building sites of London and kept Bertie here to inherit the land my parents broke their hearts and backs defending from the Tans.

The Bull and Bertie discuss election strategies

He bangs the chipped mug down on the table spilling its contents, cradles his head in his hands and begins weeping softly. His wife continues to stir the pot silently. Suddenly she turns away from the range and speaks, her voice tremulous with passion

WIFE: Bull, tis 18 long years since I last opened me mouth to speak to ye. Aye 18 years since ye walked the light of me life down to the emigrant boat with naught but the fare in his pocket and a few phone numbers in Cricklewood. I begged you to send Bertie in the place of the other one, but ye'd have none of it, would ye? Too stupid you said, too lazy, too feckless and conniving to make the friends a man would need to last on the streets of London. Well Bull, me darling, there's only one thing for it now. If he's no good for the land, too much of sinner to take the cloth and no girl in the district would after be taking him for a husband, then there's nothing else but it's up to the Dáil he'll have to go.

The Bull looks up and around him, an expression of wonder on his face like a prisoner emerging into the light of day.

BULL: Let him take his father's seat, is that what your're saying woman? Let him take responsibility for the budget estimates,the health service, the town planning, the infrastructural development, the taxation, the brown envelopes?

WIFE: I am indeed Bull, me darling. Where else could we be placing the wee ommadawn if he's to have half a chance in this world or the next?

BULL: Woman, that's pure brilliant, so it is. I'll resign me seat in the morning and have him on the hustings before the week is out. Sure, why I didn't think of it meself I don't know. He'll not be out of his depth in the Dáil, to be sure, to be sure.

WIFE: And we can retire to the villa in Malaga to see out our days in a bit of sunshine for once.

BULL: [taking her in his arms] That we can, me darling, that we can.


No comments: