One of my favourite old jokes is about aNew Yorkgrandmother who happens upon a small crowd gathered at the side of the street as she wends her way home.
She walks around the edge of the crowd, straining to see what is happening. Eventually she works out that there has been a road traffic accident and that there is a doctor in the centre of the crowd giving first aid to an injured cyclist.
Pushing her way through, she starts calling out to the Doctor: “Give him an enema, give him an enema”. Hearing her advice being repeatedly hurled at him, the Doctor turns to her and curtly says: “Madam, this young man has a broken arm – an enema is not going to help him”. “Maybe”, comes her reply, “but it couldn’t hurt”
We the Citizens are a lot like that old woman. They are well intentioned and genuinely concerned, but are so fixated on the treatment that they are blind to the ailment.
It’s deciding the treatment before attempting a diagnosis. They have an enema they want to give us, and we are going to get it. In their defence, the reforms they suggest would neither hurt nor damage anyone. But on the other hand, they would not make major changes either.
The conclusions they reached were modest enough: retaining PR STV, reducing TDs pay, but given the scale of the problems we face do any of us have the time or energy to expend on tackling the superficial ills?
This is not to disregard the importance of political reforms, but just to wonder why they pick this precise moment. They accept that all the political parties have committed themselves to political reform. Well then, let us wait and see what the Government proposes when it puts its package of reforms to a referendum next year.
My problem is twofold. First, I keep getting the feeling that We the Citizens is trying to be a non political, political party. It seems to want a voice and a say on a par with the existing political parties without all the hassle of sending candidates door to door to argue their case, or making spending returns to the Standards in Public Office commission.
Its leaders, or mentors, lambast what some saw as the focus group populism of Bertie Ahern, yet miss the fact that the model they have chosen is effectively a giant focus group itself. The members of their Citizens Assembly were, after all, chosen by a polling company on a set of criteria, broken down by age and sex. (I sometimes feel a bit that way myself).
My second problem is the suggestion that 100 people meeting together over a weekend is something new or unique. It happens in communities up and down the land, look at the campaign in Roscommon and Portlaoise to save their A&Es.
In most of these cases the local TDs and Councillors are there to state their case, take the flak and to listen to what the people are saying. Yet, We the Citizens say that they want “to demonstrate to Government and to all of the political parties that engaging with citizens in between elections works,”
But Irish politicians and Irish political parties already know that. We might not like the conclusions they reach or the actions they take – but no one can say that we do not have one of the most highly competitive constituency systems and most connected national politicians inEurope.
This surely is the paradox, or even the contradiction, at the heart of this whole exercise. It is this very level of local political engagement, this responsiveness to public mood that so many blame for our woes – including it seems We the Citizens.
Or could it be that the wrong group of politicians were just being responsive to the wrong mass of citizens. Or, to put it the way a Labour activist tweeted during Primetime: “I wonder how many people who are in that studio repeatedly voted for FF and then complained about the state of the country.”
Isn’t that the public’s prerogative?