Politics, Corruption & Europe

on Tuesday, 18 February 2003. Posted in Issue 44 Ireland: Facing up to a Multicultural Future?, 2002

Edmund Grace. SJ

An Away Match

When the supporters of the Irish soccer team visited Estonia in early June 2001, the Nice Treaty was not on their agenda. Yet one effect of this particular away match on Dermot, a Dublin northsider, was to convince him to vote ‘yes’ in the first Nice referendum a few days later. Seeing for himself the standard of living among people in that part of the world, and knowing how well Ireland has done in recent years as a member of the European Union, he felt it was only right that the Lithuanians should be admitted as soon as possible.

Dermot may have agreed with the stance taken by the Irish political elite in the Nice referenda, but they can draw little comfort from his attitude to their leadership. In the recent general election his main concern in voting was to express his disgust at the level of corruption in politics. One party was a particular focus of his annoyance, but that did not translate into support for any of the other mainstream parties.

Marie, from county Louth, voted ‘no’ in the first referendum, though she recently told me that she had nothing against the Nice Treaty itself. She certainly did not want to exclude the countries of central Europe, but she was unable to bring herself to give a ‘yes’ vote. When asked why not, she replied: ‘I don’t like being bullied; they’re shoving it down our throats.’ She decided in the end to repeat her ‘no’ in the second to express her deep anger at the behaviour of the Irish political establishment which, in her view, has behaved with a contempt for democracy.

Dermot and Marie, unlike many of their peers, think it worth their while to turn out and vote. Both come from family backgrounds in which social responsibility and political awareness would be taken for granted and neither of them would have any time for a ‘little Ireland’ mentality. Yet if anyone were to suggest to them that Irish public life needs people with a strong sense of values like themselves, their reaction would be one of wry amusement. In their eyes, as with many of their generation, you would have to be very naïve indeed to think that you could achieve anything worthwhile through a career in politics.

In Praise of Interfering Busybodies



Some of our more caustic journalists would sympathise with this view. One recent sample from Kevin Myers’ column in the Irish

Times captures the mood:

‘Politics doesn’t usually recruit passionate idealists so much as busybodies whose ambition is to interfere in other people’s lives.’ 1 Presumably Myers doesn’t want to be taken too seriously when he says of politicians that they should be watched ‘with the same horrified fascination with which we might observe beetles revelling in dung.’ The tenor of his article, however, is such that it would discourage any right thinking person from getting involved in politics.

Its easy to forget, when talking about ‘the politicians’, that elected representatives are only the tip of the iceberg of political activity in any democratic system. Each of them has to begin their political careers as just one other individual among many thousands of others throughout the country who are involved in campaigning, lobbying, protesting, debating. Many of these people are not members of political parties. Indeed, the community pressure group has probably replaced the local cumman as the focus of political involvement at grass roots level. It is a mistake to equate political involvement with membership of this or that party.

To most of the population, however, it is quite incomprehensible how anyone would want to endure the endless hours of tedium, tangled arguments and peculiar personalities to be found whenever people get together to debate and make decisions about issues of

public concern. Most people find such activity wearisome in the extreme and they tend to see both the local community activist and the public representative as being, at best, a bit daft. Many would sympathise with Myers’ distaste for politicians but before concluding that those who do get involved must be pathological, its worth considering why they might bother to do so.

The public happiness.

One popular explanation is that ‘political types’ simply love being noticed. According to this view such people will seize any opportunity, no matter how wearisome and bleak, for indulging their addiction for notoriety. It would certainly be impossible to remain politically active for any length of time if you did not enjoy being in the limelight, but this enjoyment is not necessarily unhealthy. Those who have an aversion to any kind of notice are often more to be pitied than admired. No one thrives in isolation and to thrive in a fully human way is to be able to revel happily in the recognition of others.

The American founding fathers spoke about ‘the public happiness’ by which they meant the enjoyment people get from going to meetings and public assemblies, not just out of duty or even to pursue their own interest, but because they enjoy being present on such occasions. ‘Wherever men women or children are to be found,’ wrote John Adams; ‘whether they be old or young, rich or poor, high or low, wise or foolish, ignorant or learned, every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by people about him, and within his knowledge.’2

We all need recognition and affirmation, because we all want to know that we are making a difference to the world in which we live. The early Americans spoke of this desire to make an impact on others as ‘the passion for distinction.’ They considered that this passion, like anger, could be used for good or ill. In its virtuous form they spoke of it as ‘emulation’ or ‘the desire to excel another.’ As a vice they called it ‘ambition.’3 Even the most selfless individual, if they have the capacity to engage in political activity for any length of time, will have a good dose of this particular vice, but to insist that no one should engage in public affairs unless they are certifiable saints is to demand more than human nature can deliver.

‘Who Cares?’

To engage in political activity is a service; no one seriously denies that. What many today genuinely – and thoughtlessly – doubt is that this service could ever be worthy of human nature at its best. Certainly, while the desire to be noticed by others is intrinsically healthy, it does not of itself suggest an eagerness to help others. Few people, if asked, would include politics among the helping professions, but it is worth persuing an analogy between politics and another very different form of activity – nursing.

At first sight this analogy may be disconcerting to the point of hilarity, but nurses and politicians are alike in that they are required to take a practical approach to painful realities. A nurse who dissolved in tears every time a patient is brought into intensive care would be as useless as a politician who went about in a perpetual state of mournful grief at the injustice of society.

A second feature, which we have already noted in the case of political involvement, is that it would be impossible for nurses to do their job for any length of time without enjoying what they do. This does not mean that they enjoy hospital odours or dealing with the less pleasant tasks of caring for seriously ill people. Good nurses, however, know that the work can’t be done unless they are ready to deal with these items and, in that sense, they will be genuinely happy to do so. In like manner many of the activities associated with politics have their distasteful side – such as dealing with ruthless powerful people who have no time for anything except their own selfish interests. Political leaders have to do this if a society is to be governed responsibly.


The happiness associated with nursing is not on the level of aesthetics or physical comfort or even public esteem. It takes the form of a personal satisfaction which has nothing to do with any normal criteria of success. The primary objective of medicine is to restore people to good health, but the quality of nursing care is not measured by a patient’s successful recovery. Indeed, those nurses who consciously devote themselves to the care of the dying are held in particularly high esteem. The primary satisfaction of a dedicated nurse is knowing that they have cared for the sick.

Most people accept this assessment of nursing without too much difficulty, but they find it difficult to accept that anyone involved in political activity could get the kind of satisfaction that nurses get out of caring for the sick. As we have seen, political activists are usually the kind of people who enjoy being noticed and we all tend to be dubious about people who have a knack at drawing attention to themselves. This is particularly true about those who put themselves forward to deal with issues about which we ourselves have strong feelings, while lacking the energy to do very much about them.

Political activity, however, involves a great deal of sheer hard grind which could not be sustained simply by a desire for notoriety. There are easier ways of attracting attention to oneself and there are many people who persist in their political commitment in spite of very limited success – standing as a runner up candidate in one election after another or lobbying on issues which command little public interest. Even the electorally successful have to endure their share of frustration – and electoral success can never be taken for granted.

Whatever the rest of the population may think, those who get involved in politics – and remain involved – do so, with very few exceptions, because they have the robust brisk energy to do something about the more intractable problems faced by the society in which they live. They are the only available answer to the cynical despairing question which is often asked about public issues - ‘Who cares?’


Personal lives.

Who likes popular politicians?Politically active people, with all their failings, do care. That does not necessarily make them sweet and gentle, but nor does it mean that they have no time for ordinary human relationships, as their critics would like us to believe. ‘The rest of us,’ according to Myers, ‘cherish our homes and hearths, our friends and our families’ while politicians enjoy ‘endless meetings on November nights’ and ‘talking to people they dislike.’4 A political activist who genuinely enjoys long dreary meetings is about as rare as a nurse who loves the smell of medicine but, like nurses, a dedicated politician will be happy to do what needs to be done.


There is no denying that politics can draw people away from family life, but there are many forms of activity which can have this effect. The demands of political involvement, as with other activities, can be a very maturing and character building and can actually enhance what a person can bring to their family life. As for friendship, every challenging activity is a fertile breeding ground for good humoured affection and solidarity among those involved and part of the absorbing nature of political involvement for many people is that this activity often brings with it the reward real enduring friendship. On a purely personal level they would be genuinely lost without it, just as others might feel lost if they were to stop playing golf or following their favourite football team or painting or singing in a choir or playing bridge. Its entirely appropriate to choose our friends from among those who share our interests.


Awkward characters.

The analogy between nurses and politicians is not confined to the question of personal interest and motivation. As with nurses, political leaders at any level often have to deal with human nature at its most demanding and self-centred. Awkward characters – in the hospital bed or at a public meeting – are often speaking out of a sense of hopelessness arising out of a distressing situation. Common sense, even at its most cynical, demands that they be treated in tolerant manner, but it is also admirable to try to avoid compounding their isolation.

In every public forum, along with issues of genuine political concern, people bring personal agendas of a depth and complexity which would tax the wisdom of Solomon himself. Any situation of real injustice will be complicated by such unspoken personal agendas and, although they are frequently a by-product of the wider situation, they cannot be resolved on the political level. No one can be effective in democratic politics without learning how to respond in differing ways to these differing types of demand. Legitimate anger, imagined slight, issues which are easily resolved and those for which there is no short term remedy are, from the point of view of an aggrieved person, part of the one immediate and painful reality.

The task of a responsible political leader, at any level, is to focus on what can be done and to keep hope alive in situations of genuine grievance where there seems no clear way forward. They must also learn to humour demands, which may appear flawlessly reasonable to those who make them, but are unrealistic in practise. An experienced nurse may be able to tell a grumpy patient to wise up may be a viable option for, but political leaders are rarely in a position to tell their supporters when they are being unreasonable. The primary challenge, in dealing with the really difficult political problems, is to keep hope alive.


Why no one likes ‘popular’ politicians


A question of charm.

The ability to offer hope in hopeless situations is a key hallmark of leadership in any sphere, but particularly in politics. When this ability goes hand in hand with the actor’s enjoyment of public acclaim the combination is a powerful one in terms of electoral appeal. The democratic process cannot function without the emergence of publicly sympathetic political leaders whom people regard as ‘one of us.’ The fact that such figures are in positions of power gives people that sense of hope which is vital to the healthy functioning of any political process.

This personal attractiveness, however, is an ambivalent quality. It is bound up with a popular recognition of that caring motivation already discussed and a political leader, who becomes the object of people’s longing in this way, is in a very powerful position – and a potentially corrupting one. A genuine sense of compassion provides no automatic protection against becoming disillusioned by a lack of achievement or being made arrogant by the scale of one’s own popularity. Here lies the danger, because, as well as winning votes, the ability to inspire hope dulls the critical faculty in those who lead as well as those who are lead.

There is great satisfaction – and undeniable electoral advantage - to be obtained from granting favours to those who seek them. That satisfaction can also give rise to a reluctance on the part of a public representative to take a critical look at the conditions which cause people to seek those same favours in the first place. This reluctance can degenerate into a cynical exploitation of gullible followers, but politicians don’t have to be corrupt to generate a climate of complacent despair in which corruption thrives.

One advantage of a clear ideological struggle between political parties is that it helps to keep complacency at bay among political leaders by focusing them on the challenge of competing political programmes. With the collapse of socialism, however, there is no longer any clear ideological debate within western democracies and in recent years one dominant feature of politics is an emphasis on the personal appeal of candidates rather than on the policies they claim to espouse. It is not surprising under these circumstances, that political life should lose some of its cutting edge and that corruption – both in reality and in the public mind – should emerge as a major issue.

Whether corruption is a bigger problem now that it has been is a matter for debate. What is beyond question is the lower tolerance among voters of any abuse of power. As standards of education rise, people are more critical of those in positions of power and the relationship between voters and those whom they elect has become more complex. The individual voter will continue to respond on a level of personality in voting for a particular candidate but, when that same individual views politicians in general, that element of charm, which candidates need to get elected, comes under a more critical – and sceptical – scrutiny. People are more keenly aware of the corrupting ambivalent nature of that key ingredient of political success – popularity.

No confidence.

The two young voters referred to at the opening of this article, Dermot and Marie, typify the jaundiced view which many now take of elected politicians. This is particularly the case among articulate, and altruistic people who can see for themselves that people on the margins are not even despised by the majority; they are simply unnoticed. They know that this is unjust and, in the long run, will be harmful to everyone but they have no faith in the political process as a means of providing a remedy for the situation. In their view no one can engage with that process unless they begin by selling their soul to an alliance of big business and complacent voters and, as for the issue of corruption, that is only a symptom of a deeper malaise.

Once any group of people in power are seen as a class apart and intent on furthering their own interests, the challenge of trying to restore public confidence in their bona fides can hardly be overestimated. As they set about undoing the damage caused by their corrupt colleagues, elected politicians will be greeted at every step with the question: ‘For whose benefit are you doing this?’While tough anti-corruption laws may win the approval of the electorate, on their own they are likely to be seen merely as a minimum requirement; an underlying distrust will persist. Should the politicians try to argue that they, unlike their critics, are trying to get the political process to work on behalf of the people, they will be met with a further question: ‘Does democracy have to be like this?’

An ever increasing proportion of the electorate doesn’t bother to turn out and vote. Fewer and fewer people of leadership calibre are interested in joining political parties. A growing number of people are getting involved in other forms of opposition politics. Are these developments to be taken as tacit approval for the political system as currently constituted or as a vote of no confidence?

‘The unemployed don’t vote.’

In the liberal democratic tradition universal suffrage is designed to ensure that the voice of the people is sovereign. The parties which dominate parliament, however, are no longer seen as mass movements voicing deeply held concerns. In the popular mind they have become self-selecting interest groups focused on the task of getting elected to power. The formulation of party policy is no longer rooted primarily in political struggle but modelled instead on the market process. Political parties design their programmes and present them to the electorate in the same way that commercial

organisations design products and offer them for sale.

The tradition of party politics in which all our current political leaders have been formed has brought undeniable benefits, but its limits are unwittingly revealed in a hard-headed comment attributed to Margaret Thatcher: ‘The unemployed don’t vote.’ Political parties are geared towards responding to the interests of those who actually turn out and vote and they are electorally constrained by those interests. This means that they are at one

removed from one of the key political challenges of our time – the disaffection of marginalised minorities. Apart from the ques

tion of justice, our complex inter

dependent world is easily destabilised by a small group of people who see themselves as having nothing to lose.

Faction politics.

Majority rule is often seen as the inevitable embodiment of democratic values, but we need to ask if those values are always well served by this model of politics. A clear answer to this question was given over two centuries ago by the founders of the United States of America, who are among the great pioneers of the liberal democratic tradition.

In the early years of American independence, when each of the thirteen former colonies were sovereign states, self-serving cliques got themselves elected to power and proceeded to govern without any sense of fairness or foresight. The result was economic chaos and social dislocation. The solution devised by a small group of far sighted political leaders was to create a wider entity – ‘the United States’ – where no one parochial

clique could dominate and no coalition could survive without leaders of stature who had the intelligence and integrity to command enduring and widespread trust.5

Access to political power can only come about through the forming and re-forming of alliances and networks of personal contact. There is a healthy aspect to the interplay of factions, but faction becomes unhealthy when a network of people with privileged access to power begins to cultivate self-serving attitudes which have the effect of monopolising power in their own hands. They don’t have to set about this in any formal manner; often the less formal and more implicit their interaction the more effective it will be.

In the popular perception elected politicians form just such a clique and, even if they cannot accept the validity of this perception, they cannot afford to ignore its significance for the future of democratic government. To restore public confidence in the political process a model of democratic politics will have to be developed which will amount to something more than an occasional choice between a small number political parties which are perceived as little more than self-selecting factions. This will not happen without a new form of opposition politics and, in this sphere of activity, we in Ireland have an honourable and inventive tradition.

An opening for marginalised groups


An Irish perspective on Europe.

Figures such as O’Connell and Parnell and the political leaders of Irish America played a pioneering role in the development of the party political machine which has come to dominate politics throughout the world. This strategy of combining grass-roots organisation with tight party discipline was first devised as a means of opposing the then political establishment. The party machine was successful as a means of gaining access to power, on both sides of the Atlantic, for people who until then had been excluded.

The recent referenda campaigns in Ireland, not just those relating to Europe, have marked the emergence of a new form of opposition – this time to the very political machines which we Irish helped to create. This development, when taken with the social partnership model which has worked so successfully in recent years - and which we adopted largely from mainland Europe - has effectively sidelined the political party as the primary mechanism for change. Certain issues, however, remain intractable particularly with regard to socially excluded groups who have no faith in the political system. Issues relating social marginalisation such as housing, substance misuse and prison reform continue to be low on the political agenda and it is unrealistic to expect this to change as long as electoral politics at national level continues to function as it does. With all the goodwill in the world conscientious politicians will be constrained by the complacency of the average voter.

Democracy is about government by all the people and a crucial principle of democratic government has to be that marginalised have a right to privileged access to the political arena as a means of overcoming their marginalisation. Without such an inclusive vision ‘the people’ will degenerate into a collection of mutually antagonistic factions. When this happens no one gains except small groups of corrupt racketeers.The founders of the United States had the insight that a single political process in a larger democratic unit would be more inclusive than the more self-contained parochial politics smaller independent states. Perhaps the time has come for marginalised groups in Ireland to look more closely at what a wider European political process might have to offer in the area of social marginalisation.

A more inclusive style of politics.

The resolution of social problems calls for consistent long-term planning combined with gradual steady implementation. The undeniable political achievements of the European project have resulted from just such a long-term approach on issues which at the outset were only of concern to small numbers of dedicated people.

This way of proceeding has left it increasingly open to the charge of being undemocratic. Indeed, there is much talk about the democratic deficit, but no one seems too sure what exactly to do about it.

However, this political vulnerability of European institutions offers a possible opening for those who have a concern for the rights of marginalised groups. Instead of trying to model itself on the prevailing understanding of democracy, the European Union could best serve democratic values by championing the interests of marginalised groups and in that way challenging the complacency of majoritarian politics.

Until now those who have sought to further the agenda of social politics have focused on strategies which, consciously or otherwise, are modelled on party political process of national parliaments - \'our members,\' \'my constituents.\' Who cares about \'my constituents\' if they don\'t vote, or \'our members\' if they are an impoverished and disenfranchised minority? What\'s the point in arguing that more would be done about homelessness or drug addiction or community care for the mentally ill if there were votes to be gained from it? Surely by this stage that\'s obvious to everyone. Its not that the majority of voters are opposed to the concerns of marginalised groups; its just that their interest is limited. A political process designed around the concerns of the majority, therefore, cannot but fail to do justice to those who need it most.

A more effective way of arguing for the rights of marginalised groups is within a forum which operates from the perspective of the common good. ‘Who is being excluded?’ ‘Whose talents are being neglected?’ ‘Whose dignity is being violated?’ ‘How can we thrive as a community?’ These questions strike the note of pathos which is absent from contemporary politics and without which any appeal to justice will go unheard. They are also more likely to strike home at the level of European rather than national politics, because the European political forum is still in the process of formation. In particular, the Commission is specifically charged with the task of concerning itself with the common good of the European project. Marginalised groups need real political leverage. The European Union needs democratic legitimacy.




1 Irish Times, 16 October, 2002

2 Cf. Hanna Arendt, On Revolution, [London 1965] p.119.

3 ibid.

4 see footnote 1.

5 Federalist Papers etc.

We tend to think that law defines what crime is. This makes sense because contemporary legal codes are concerned with marking out the territory where conduct is permissible by specifying the conduct that is outlawed. Yet the earliest bodies of law – consider for example, the Torah or Hammurabi’s Code – are at least as committed to articulating the good as proscribing the bad... Read full editorial

Working Notes is a journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The journal focuses on social, economic and theological analysis of Irish society. It has been produced since 1987.