We get the politics we deserve. Fine Gael wants to reinvent government. Last Sunday, the party published a document called 'Reinventing Government'. The party leader Enda Kenny went on RTÉ Radio's This Week programme to promote it, and by the end of the interview Fine Gael probably wanted to reinvent Enda. Again.
Kenny is in line to become the next Taoiseach. He is a decent man, with plenty of attributes, but in any other political culture he wouldn't get within an ass's roar of the top job.
Equally, if politics in this country operated as designed for liberal democracies in general, Brian Cowen would no longer be Taoiseach. His role in the bubble economy would have seen to that, irrespective of any other qualities he possesses.
Brian Lenihan's stewardship of the economy over the past two years would ensure that his position was barely tenable. And in such a world, Eamon Gilmore would have been laughed out of town by now for the continued espousal of his primary policy – expressing anger.
Luckily for all of the above, our political culture is a bad joke. And the blame for that lies squarely with the electorate.
We get the politics we deserve. Accountability does not exist at the highest level. In 'Reinventing Government', Fine Gael proposes to make the public service more accountable, but who really believes that ministers will be properly accountable? We have a system in which a hugely disproportionate amount of power is vested in the executive, but therein nobody is responsible for anything.
Last February, politics went into shock when a minister actually did resign (Greetings, Willie!). The minister in question had been caught with his pants down, or more accurately, swearing a false affidavit. Yet, despite the seriousness of his actions, Willie O'Dea's resignation only came about when the junior coalition party kicked up. His Fianna Fáil colleagues saw no problem with what Willie did. Asking for his resignation was viewed not as invoking standards, but as handing the other crowd a reason to crow. This is what passes for accountability. And poor Willie blames the Green Party for making him do it. Most likely, he'll top the poll again at the next election.
We really got the politics we deserved over the last few weeks. As sovereignty hangs in the balance, the tribunes of the people manned the ramparts. Jim McDaid threw it all up and walked away in a fit of pique, just to demonstrate his individuality. Jackie Healy-Rae sent out his son and heir to demand a hospital for Kenmare as his price for keeping the government in office. Michael Lowry, his position enhanced by Dáil arithmetic, issued high-minded thoughts on democracy, in between visits to the Moriarty tribunal. A gaggle of backbench Fianna Fáilers, led by Noel O'Flynn, ignored the snorting elephant in the room and launched personal re-election campaigns by presenting themselves as defenders of the elderly.
Last Tuesday, on RTÉ's The Late Debate, rebel Fianna Fáiler Mattie McGrath spoke of how he was looking out for "my hospital in south Tipperary". Mattie, nominally a servant of the people, is claiming ownership of the hospital. The inference is that patients owe their good health to Mattie. How could they vote for anybody else?
At government level, the urgency to save the state is relegated below the urgency to save face in Donegal South- West. Publication of a four-year budgetary plan has been put back until after the by-election. To blazes with the bond markets when there are a few dozen first preferences up for grabs in the Finn valley.
Meanwhile, in the constituency itself, the prevailing political culture shines brightly. Those seeking to represent and legislate in the national parliament are primarily concerned with conveying the notion that they will ask not what they can do for their country at this time of national peril, but what they can do about the cracked footpath outside the home of the next voter. Or maybe a bypass? Or whatever else you're looking for, ma'am.
On Wednesday, the candidates debated on Morning Ireland. One of the big issues was cancer care. The establishment of centres of excellence has adversely hit Donegal with the relegation of Sligo General in the new configuration. But that decision has been made and it won't be reversed, irrespective of who is in government. All of the candidates are well aware of the new reality. Yet in debate they all attempted to convey the impression that they will move mountains to ensure the national cancer strategy is scrapped and services in the Donegal area are enhanced.
This is what passes for politics, and it is nothing less than we deserve. At local level, voters elect the politician who tells them what they want to hear, the politician who can best give the impression that he will deliver patronage. At national level, we elect the party which tells us what we want to hear on a bigger scale. Hence in 2007, all the parties declared that the good times would continue to roll and there were enough goodies for everybody in the audience. That was what most people wanted to hear. Reality was an inconvenient truth that had no place in a general election.
If this is the system you want, so be it. If you believe that the TD's primary function should continue to be as a messenger boy or girl, no problem. If you see no connection between the system and its priorities, and the state we're in, then you have nothing to complain about. Blame it all on the bankers.
If, on the other hand, you think this political culture is a major component of our ills, then presumably you want change. That will not come from above. Those in situ have too much invested in the system. Change will only come when those who vote demand something more of their politicians than acting the clown writing redundant letters, or making phoney representations. Only then can we begin to put together a political culture appropriate to a country claiming some degree of sanity.