As it is with food – that which is good for you is often unpalatable – so it goes with politics: the debates that are the most important are often the dullest. It's much easier to get excited about the Fianna Fáil collapse at the next election, or the possibility of the Labour Party winning more than 50 seats, than it is to explore the limitations of multi-seat constituencies or examine the many ways in which Dáil rules and procedures are inimical to decent government.
For those reasons, Wednesday's Prime Time state-of-the-nation debate had the taste of spinach about it although, as it turned out, it was spinach dipped in a nice spicy topping. There were times when it seemed that the guests – Eamon Dunphy, Elaine Byrne from Trinity College, historian Diarmuid Ferriter and journalist Margaret E Ward – wanted to replace the Confederacy of Dunces which currently runs the country with a kind of Egghead Élite, in which actual decision-making would be replaced by learned and passionate discussion about the problems confronting us.
But mostly it was a successful, useful and informative contribution to a debate that will surely have to intensify if we are not to make all the same mistakes again in years to come.
The section of the discussion that struck me most forcefully came when Byrne suggested to Dunphy that he might like to run for the Dáil, a compliment he returned shortly afterwards.
Personally speaking, I'd be happy to see either of them become a TD as long as Dunphy could continue his contributions to sports punditry (and, let's face it, being in the Dáil never stopped Bertie Ahern in that regard) and Byrne kept up her media work (and let's face it, Willie O'Dea has never let being a TD get in the way of his increasingly deranged rants in the Sunday Independent). Funnily enough, however, neither individual seemed remotely interested in throwing themselves at the mercy of the electorate.
The reason for such bashfulness was that both Dunphy and Byrne have long ago spotted the obvious – our TDs, though many of them are undoubtedly sound individuals, are as useless as a chocolate condom when it comes to running a country and making policy. The Financial Times's Mathew Engel last weekend described the Dáil as the world's only gathering of inarticulate Irish people, a declaration that is only three or four TDs away from the literal truth. Our public representatives are amongst the worst democracy has to offer, much more focused on retaining their seats, and carrying out all the local nonsense necessary to that end, to ever have the inclination to properly monitor and assess government decisions. Partly, this is because they know that Dáil procedures don't provide for accountability so they might as well concentrate on local matters. But mainly it's to do with the people themselves: they're not engaged enough, intelligent enough, interested enough or angry enough to make any significant contribution to national debate. Unless that situation changes radically, the election of a new FG/Labour government, though it will be a genuinely happy event for Ireland, will be pointless in the long term.
It's not just up to the political classes to change, however. Our politicians are the way they are because we keep electing them to be that way. We're the ones who rewarded them for putting local interests, no matter how petty, first; for writing letters or making phone calls on our behalf that we should really be able to do ourselves; for turning up at the funerals of people they barely know. Until voters wean themselves off their dependency on local shysters, we are doomed to repeat all the old mistakes – electing parliaments in which people like Jackie Healy-Rea, Ivor Callely and Michael Lowry are taken seriously.
Only to the extent that we have often cast our vote for imbeciles can we be said to have had any role to play in the economic downturn. The attempt by politicians like Brian Lenihan or bankers like Seán FitzPatrick or a range of newspaper columnists and commentators to share the blame with ordinary people is merely a latter-day version of Catholic guilt – making us feel ashamed for being able to afford to leave the country a few times a year, or eat out at weekends, or build an extension.
Voters can contribute to change unless, of course, we have become disillusioned with the whole business of politics. But that will involve a change in our own behaviour, in our expectations of what constitutes a fit and proper person to represent us in the Dáil, and in our tolerance for the kind of cute hoors who hang around Leinster House, their snouts deep in its lucrative trough. We will have our chance in a few months – maybe in a matter of weeks, if the numbers don't add up for the government after Tuesday's budget – to test ourselves. We'll be electing a new government for sure, but we have an opportunity to start making a new country as well.
Snow fun being attacked by angry kids on the prowl
When did our children become so angry? Since the snowfall began last weekend, bands of kids and teenagers have targeted taxi drivers as they drove onto estates, pulled open the doors of cars stopped at traffic lights and pelted the drivers with snowballs, waited for buses to open their doors for disembarking passengers and bombarded people on board, wrecked a Luas tram with a giant snowball (seriously), knocked cyclists off their bikes, and in one incident dragged a black driver from his slow-moving car and beat him up.
I'm as up for snowball-related fun as much as the next man, and, if I say so myself, took my pounding on Dublin's Talbot Street on Thursday night with good grace. But there seems to be an angry, Lord Of The Flies, quality to some of the behaviour of our kids during this cold spell. Or maybe I'm just getting old.