Friday 12 February 2010

George Lee: What Next?

It has been said that all political careers end in failure but some political careers last longer than that of George Lee. His decision to resign his Dáil seat and quit politics - a mere nine months after his landslide election on a wave of popular revulsion with the present government - was clearly unexpected. Then again, so too was his decision to throw his hat into the political arena in May 2009 and seek the Fine Gael nomination in the Dublin South by-election. What could have motivated his decision in each instance?

George Lee's foray into politics always had more the feel of a personal crusade than the usual huckstering. He was a man who wanted to shake up the system. He drew applause from all sides for his honesty, enthusiasm and integrity. He drew even more cheers when, during his maiden speech to the Dáil he referred to deputies who appeared to be sleeping! But making politicians look stupid is an easy game, especially when you're on the outside. Particularly when some of them just seem to be asking for it.

We may never know what really transpired over the last nine months that caused George Lee to throw in the towel. Some, especially his party colleagues have been quick to offer explanations nevertheless. "His ego wasn't satisfied by the reality of the job" is how one Dáil and party colleague described his predicament, a view confirmed by another who offered the somewhat softer assessment: "I think he probably missed the immediate impact of the 20-second soundbite on TV, that it's not the same when you're in politics."

So people are taking sides based on whether George Lee was right or wrong to resign. No one is asking if he was right or wrong to enter Leinster House politics in the first place. George Lee sought election because he wanted to contribute to the efforts to find a solution to the country's present economic difficulties. He seemed to think that Dáil Éireann was the platform from which he could sell an alternative approach to the Irish electorate and public. He resigned a mere nine months later because, he says, he "had virtually no influence or input into shaping Fine Gael’s economic policies at this most critical time".

The point that appears to be missed - by George Lee, but also by his champions and his critics - is that Dáil Éireann isn't really a forum where policy (economic or otherwise) is formulated or shaped. The primary function of the Dáil is to enact legislation to give effect to policies that are usually formulated elsewhere. It also facilitates the formation of a govenment, which comprises a Taoiseach and his cabinet, and keeps a watching brief on its performance. The role is akin to that of a kingmaker with no real executive function. That power lies elsewhere.

Ireland's system of governance falls into the parliamentary tradition. Other countries have what is sometimes referred to as an 'executive presidency'. The USA is one such example and usually cited as the most clear-cut, since they have complete separation of the executive and legislative functions of government. The judicial system is also separate but I think that that is the case in almost all countries that have attained a certain level of political development - correct me if I'm wrong.

Of course identifying two main trends (the parliamentary and executive presidency) does not exclude the possibility of certain national peculiarities and traits arising out of a country's history and traditions. Some countries retain vestiges of their history in the form of 'constitutional monarchy' for instance. And of course the Irish system is also steeped in history. Dáil Éireann is but one example of this.

Dáil is an Irish term that has a number of meanings. The English translation usually given is that of a 'meeting' or 'assembly' but it can also be used simply to convey a sense of togetherness (which some might interpret as cronyism) or it might even refer to an 'allocation, distribution or allotment'. The cynic would say that this is because the Dáil is where people meet to allocate sinecures and cushy jobs but another explanation is possible. The Dáil itself is not parliament but simply one tier of an tOireachtas which translates as 'deliberative assembly' in Ó Dónaill's Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla. Thus it meets to consider, but does not actually formulate policy.

Of course An tOireachtas is also the name of an annual festival of Irish language, art and culture that takes place. It is not affiliated to the legislative assembly, but not unlike its political cousin, it could be described as a carnival of sorts.

A study of the orgins of 'parliament' is also instructive in terms of understanding it's function. The terms itself derives from the French word parlement, meaning discussion, from the verb parler - to speak. It might be inferred from this that parliament therefore is nothing more than a talking shop, which is what it has become to many, but this was not the original intention.

Typically what would happen is that The King would summon parliament to listen to what his subjects had to say. The King would listen but not necessarily speak or address any of the concerns raised there and then. More likely, when he had heard enough, he would adjourn to deliberate, either in private, or among his close inner circle. (Many countries still retain The Privy Council by the way). This also was how The King retained his power - by listening but not engaging in discussion he retained exclusive power to act. A strategy of keeping people guessing if you like.

If you've ever been part of a collective decision making process, you'll probably have twigged that the best way to push through an agenda is to ignore every objection, for as long as possible, until such time as it goes away or becomes unbearable. But unlike The King who summoned the original parliaments, who listened but didn't speak, modern day parliamentarians might be accused of speaking endlessly but never really listening!

Over time, in any case, this became an ineffective system of governance and in various countries, kings were either deposed or had their power drastically curtailed. Parliament therefore became a check on royalist absolutism. Even in countries like the USA, which didn't suffer these feudal trappings, it was still felt necessary to have a system of checks in place, so that The President didn't become an elected king.

Nowadays, when royalist absolutism has been all but consigned to the dustbin of history (except perhaps for one or two places) what should be the role of parliament? And not just parliament because democracy is supposed to mean 'government of the people, by the people, for the people'. That's a far cry from 'government of the people, by corrupt but elected cronies, for the purpose of who knows what?'

In the fallout from the resignation of George Lee, some have suggested that it's time for the formation of a new political force on the Irish landscape. While this would certainly be an interesting development, I just hope that those who might be contemplating such a move have better luck, and more acumen than George Lee. It's not enough to simply want to make a difference - knowing how and where this can be done is essential in the heel of the hunt.

Perhaps George Lee would have done better if he had joined Fianna Fáil?

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2010


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