Killian Forde and the Moguls of Irish politics

The departure/defection/eloping of Cllr Killian Forde from Sinn Fein to the Labour party appears to be causing considerably more discussion that the earlier leavings of Christy Burke or Louise Minihan.

While this is perhaps because he has left and joined another party, it is also possibly because it was more about policy and the party’s overall direction rather than what was happening on the ground in particular wards or constituencies. We’re all aware that Christy Burke was less than impressed with the shenanigans around the Dublin Central by-election and the party’s support or not of his efforts given that they still favoured the eventual election of Mary Lou McDonald come the general election. Sinn Fein made a major mistake in 2004 in overselling the level of service that part time cllrs could be reasonable expected to deliver – for all the talk that there is of what cllr are paid, it is not a full time position. It was never designed to be as part of our democrat institutions. There is a considerable disconnect between the life of the SF activist in the north who see nothing wrong with committing yourself full-time for a roughly minimum wage return. If you were prepared to spend time in prison away from your family and friends as some were, then living on the minimum wage serving your community appears to be little enough of a sacrifice. Yet in the south that mindset doesn’t exist in large part because the south has not been shaped in the same way as the north by the situation there. Here a person embarking on political involvement not unreasonably expects they will still be able to hold down a proper job in order to be able to provide for a family and to spend time with them. Their expectations would be that a few evenings per week they will have meetings or canvassing, occasionally out during the daytime, and then responding to constituent’s queries within a reasonable period, not to provide people with a free advice service 24/7 and be out every evening in all weathers.

That in part is why there have been so many resignations as public reps within SF, too many found that the level of work expected from them by the higher ups in the party (who are mostly northern and mostly full-time) was not compatible with actually being ordinary members of the southern electorate that they were tasked with representing. And this burnout and high turnover hurt the party in 2009.

But that isn’t the driver behind Killian Forde’s departure, in his case it appears that the problem was different but similarly systemic. The way in which SF goes about the business of its politics is what caused him to leave, in essence SF operates more like FF with almost all the decision making power in all areas being exercised by a few at the top and with little room for input from those who were not in favour with the leadership. In other words, it’s political nepotism. So wrapped up in the long term and personality driven nature of the republican end of project of the peace process the party appears unable to separate a criticism from the individual making the criticism, or the policy being criticised from the person who has advocated it. And that has hampered the party as it tries to come to terms with the fact that the peace process is for many people eaten bread and that other more mundane struggles still exist, like getting a job and making sure that your child can access a good education or health care.

This isn’t a problem unique to SF of course, though it appears more marked at this stage within that organisation. I’ve had my own views for some time on the lack of opportunities for people who are not public reps to have a formal input into the development and review of party policy and I’ve repeated those views to any within my party who will listen. I’m not blind to the real challenges involved in convincing the public of ideas nor to the limitations that there must of necessity be given that it is the elected representatives that must be able to make the case for the advancement of a particular policy platform. After all, it would be completely wrong to compel public reps to argue for policies they do not believe in or have a hand in shaping. But I would hold that we should have a better balance towards involving the members of political parties in decisions about the direction of the parties they are members of and which they do so much to sustain.

I don’t believe nor do I claim that we in Fine Gael have the balance quite right in that regard, but it would seem that SF have the balance completely wrong in the other direction with people, who are not answerable or accountable to the electorate and thus not as in touch with ordinary people, in positions of being in charge of policy formulation and more importantly in the decision making to adopt specific policies. They are like the movie moguls of old, hidden from the view of the paying public but always active behind the scenes shaping what parts the actors get and deciding who will work in this town again. Politics should be the most open and transparent of fields, with people rising and falling by success of the decisions they make and the ideas they create. To belabour the movie comparison still further we need fewer moguls and more auteurs. We need individuals who will present their own original ideas that can be shaped and revised by debate and implementation and who will be rewarded with more opportunities if those ideas deliver for the public. And we need fewer people who merely act as the messengers presenting the ideas of others, disowning responsibility for those ideas that are found wanting, but embracing after the fact those that succeed.

I wouldn’t make the presumption of describing Killian Forde as a friend, though I’ve always found him courteous we’d have significant differences of opinion about the political direction of the country. That is likely to continue to be the case but I’ve found him to be someone that it’s possible to debate political points with because he was interested in the content of politics, unlike some in Irish politics he is able to listen to the arguments put forward by others. This is done, I believe, with a view that I share that only by genuinely listening to others that you can properly find the flaws in their arguments. I wish him well in his future within the Labour party and look forward to having the opportunity at some point of again testing my ideas against his ideas. Because politics is primarily about ideas, not personalities.