The recent debacle surrounding Michael Lowry has made him a poster boy of sorts for basically everything that is wrong with Ireland. Even though the man is basically six-odd feet worth of shenanigans, the people of North Tipperary keep voting him in like it’s going out of style. In fact, his vote has gone up steadily throughout the myriad damaging revelations of the McCracken and now Moriarty tribunals. The reason? He “gets stuff done”, whatever the hell that means. Such is the skewed mentality of some Irish voters: sure if the local TD gets the potholes fixed or sorted out the local school with an extension, what odds if that they fiddled their taxes, accepted bribes or subjected errant constituents to water boarding?
This line of thinking isn’t unique to North Tipperary of course. A whole host of constituencies have, in the past or present, elected people who made parochialism not just a virtue but an electoral cash cow. Sometimes merely feigning activity does the trick. The singling out by both the media and everyone outside a thirty minute radius of Thurles of Lowry as a bad example of how to do business is one prong of a wider call for much-needed reform on a national scale, but even if Lowry is censured by the Dáil and dipped in a tar pit, the type of politics he represents won’t go away. And a lot of people wouldn’t let it either.
Counter-intuitive it may be, but Lowry has made a lot of hay over the whole notion of the “Dublin witch-hunt”, and the sense of anti-establishment that endows. Local politicians of every stripe often take to showing themselves off as renegades taking on the jumped big city boys who just don’t get the spirit of the people of insert-county-here, and it inevitably goes down well because people feel the need to elect the local man who’ll have very few degrees of separation between them. Thus, the reasoning goes that if all the other towns in the area have such a councillor, so should you.
That’s fine with the council, but the problem is these fiefdoms are extrapolated for national elections. Unfortunate as it is, people are more inclined to vote defensively for reasons of geography rather than positively for someone whose ideas they find more compelling. It’s a hard habit to break, but the general election this year did strike a blow for candidates who are keen to rise above the parochial scene, though to go too much the other extreme would be harder still.
In response to the exhausted state of gombeen politics, there is a new school of thought that TD’s should deal with national issues first and foremost. That in itself is great, but in a TV debate recently such an advocate found herself rather awkwardly on the wrong side of an argument. When asked if a constituent came to her asking for help getting a hospital place for an ill parent, Labour TD Ciara Conway replied with a clinical answer about providing information that sounded as if it was what she thought she should say rather than what she actually thought. The reason why the likes of Lowry prosper is that he probably would have tried to cordon off a ward if someone asked him to, and people are more inclined to respond to the right thing for the wrong reasons than the wrong thing for the right reasons. Especially if it’s a burning issue they have.
Should TD’s focus on big national questions rather than man-marking their own patch? Unquestionably, but nor should they be too high-handed or precious to help a constituent in need with a problem. The key is balance: helping the local school secure an extension or keeping the local hospital open is noble work, but when representatives start making solo runs for credit on ensemble projects or, as Lowry himself did recently, send letters back home with students of the school he helped extend for their parents to remind them who’s good to them, that’s when things start getting deplorable. Politicians who work hard for their locale and by extension their country are as welcome as they are needed, but glorified concierges are certainly not.
Sketch from RTE comedy show "The Savage Eye" which sums up this mentality -