As Irish politicians are in the dock once more, Aidan Kirrane asks what we should expect of our elected officials.
“Don’t follow leaders”, crooned Bob Dylan in his bluesy anthem ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. If the supposed actions of Fianna Fáil TDs, Mattie McGrath and Christy O’Sullivan are anything to go by one can’t help but think that Dylan has a point. Both showed up in court the week before last on charges relating to assault and drunk-driving respectively.
While a politician indulging in behaviour more befitting of a rock-star is not a daily occurrence, don’t bet on McGrath and O’Sullivan being the last politicians to dip a toe into the waters of scandal. After all, politics and controversy have gone hand in hand – long before Monica Lewinsky was a twinkle in her father’s eye.
Indeed, it was in this great little country that one of the first political scandals occurred. When the public learned of Charles Stewart Parnell’s affair with Kitty O’Shea the public outcry was deafening and the man once called the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ was forced out of politics in disgrace. So much for the notion that there was no sex in Ireland before the Late Late Show.
Elsewhere in the world, politics has been dogged by the behaviour of politicians and the United States is no exception. One of the most famous scandals of all time revolved around the 42nd president, one William Jefferson Clinton and his affair with a White House intern called Monica Lewinsky. Both names are now synonymous with political scandal and the episode severely tarnished Clinton’s reputation.
A ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’ approach may work on children but it will prevent government from functioning correctly
As soon as any story with the mildest hint of wrongdoing is made public it is not long before the suffix “-gate” is attached. For example, the term “Riogate” being used to describe the furore that surrounded Rio Ferdinand’s missed drugs test. However, as with most things, you have to go to the original to get the best and scandals don’t come much bigger than Watergate. Richard Nixon’s involvement with burglary and phone-tapping led to huge public uproar. “Tricky Dick” was the first and so far, only, American president to resign from office.
Across the water in Westminster, politicians have also been caught with their trousers’ down. As much a part of 1960s imagery as the Beatles’ mop-tops or the moon-landing is the infamous photograph of Christine Keeler sitting naked on the Anne Jacoben model 3107 chair. Keeler came to prominence as the showgirl at the heart of the Profumo affair.
Revelations that Keeler had had a relationship with Minister for War, John Profumo as well as a suspected Soviet spy rocked the British political landscape and led to Profumo’s resignation. More recently, Liberal Democrat MP, Mark Oaten stepped down after it was revealed he had been involved in a relationship with a male prostitute.
The world is becoming increasingly more intrusive and more and more people in the public eye are being placed on a pedestal only to be shot down after their fifteen minutes of fame. Britney Spears is one celebrity who suffered a nervous breakdown after succumbing to the pressure of being hounded by the media every minute of every day. Countless other public figures have endured similar ordeals in the celebrity-obsessed time in which we live. Not a week passes without the media running a story shaming a personality that the public eagerly laps up before foraging for more.
While the often illegal and inappropriate extra-curricular activities of movie-stars, musicians and those of similar ilk are expected and quite often accepted, it is a different matter when the offending party is a politician. Take Ashley Cole’s infidelity for example. He can play as many away games as he likes but the average Chelsea fan won’t care as long as he continues to deliver the goods in the left back position.
Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky may not have hampered his abilities as a president but it left the Americans thinking, “If his wife can’t trust him, how can I?” As a result, it nearly caused his impeachment from office. Politicians should not be voted for on the basis on their personal life, but on their ability to govern effectively. However, the best way to lead is by example and improper personal behaviour severely damages public belief in a politician’s aptitude to do their job. Strong leadership is of immense importance and it is critical that politicians act like leaders to ensure public confidence in democracy.
In the past we, as a nation, have been too eager to turn a blind eye to the behaviour of our politicians. Haughey, for example, went on to become Taoiseach after the Arms Crisis. It’s impossible to imagine an American president being elected if he had the slightest hint of previous links with terrorist groups. Likewise, the tribunal process has been allowed to run for too long without providing concrete answers to the questions posed to it.
It is imperative that we remember that politicians chose to run for public office and be put in the spotlight. Excusing the inexcusable because it is something “ordinary people” do or by pointing to the pressures of the job is unacceptable. If a politician wants to get drunk and get in a fight they should get their money back from their career guidance councillor and pick a different profession.
It is intolerable for politicians not to practice what they preach and failing to do so amounts to hypocrisy. That has no place in politics. A ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’ approach may work on children but it will prevent government from functioning correctly.
Christy O’Sullivan has been convicted of drunk-driving. If Deputy McGrath is found guilty of assault, both men should consider their futures in politics. It is nonsensical to have a country run by people who cannot keep the very rules they are trying to enforce. In the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, “You do not lead by hitting people on the head – that’s assault, not leadership”.