Credit: JFK Summer School

At Summer School, Politicians get to be themselves

The end of August, and beginning of September, is a reflective time for Irish politicians. It is a period on the calendar that, for forty three years, has been dominated by the MacGill Summer School – the annual jamboree in Donegal where politicians and journalists and the rest of the great and the good travel to the relatively remote town of Glenties to unburden themselves of the day to day restrictions on what can be said, and thought, and luxuriate in some honest-to-god truth telling about the state of the country.

In recent years, though, MacGill has found itself with a rival – the upstart, but ever growing, John F. Kennedy Summer School, held in New Ross each year. It was there that your correspondent found himself this weekend, kindly invited to join panels on Ireland’s relationship with the EU (where it was a thrill to share a stage with one of my favourite reporters, Dermot Murnaghan), and what to expect from American politics over the next year or so.

To some extent, these events benefit from the fact that the audience very much does not comprise what you might call “ordinary people”. Regular citizens and voters simply do not sign up for three days of interviews with politicians and journalists and newsreaders: The audience, then, is full of people with very defined opinions on most issues, and therefore there’s little to nothing to be gained from pandering for votes from the stage. That removal of the politicians’ greatest temptation is probably what induces the outbreaks of frankness and honesty, and the slight reduction in heat, that comes from the stage.

The panel on Irish politics, this year, featured four relatively well known politicians – Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty, Fianna Fáil’s James Lawless, Sinn Fein’s Sorcha Clarke, and the Social Democrats’ Gary Gannon. It was ably moderated by Irish Independent columnist Sarah Carey.

Away from the light and heat of partisan battle, the four delivered an hour of thoughtful and interesting conversation that was much more flattering to the Irish political class than anything you might customarily see on RTE or Virgin Media, primarily I suspect because the imperative to win votes had been removed. Notably, there was a frank and refreshing admission from Senator Doherty, questioned about Irish versus Swedish performance on Covid 19, that she could not be certain that Ireland had gotten the balance on covid right in hindsight. Deputy Lawless was much more open than he might have been in other formats about his hostility to the “triple lock” mechanism that regulates the deployment of Irish troops overseas. There was open acknowledgement of the problems with Ireland’s electoral system and the way it makes politicians hyper-focused on local issues – albeit with the caveat that those local issues sometimes illuminate national problems. If you want a more depressing angle, then the conversation also made very clear that amongst these four at least, the Green Party need not worry about their agenda being dropped even if the voters remove the Greens themselves from power.

And yet in the round, it was the kind of discussion that, had it been televised, would probably have done the reputation of Irish politicians the world of good. But then, had it been televised, they’d probably have had an entirely different conversation.

Whether this is primarily a problem with the media, or with the electorate, or with politicians themselves, is hard to say. My inclination is to blame the media and the electorate, because they are the two factors that when added, seem to change the demeanour and conduct of politicians.

The media, firstly, tends to structure political discussions around conflict: Issues are presented, out of a duty to fairness, with opposition on one side and Government on the other. And issues tend only to get covered significantly when there is a partisan conflict to explore. What’s more, the time constraints the media imposes place an emphasis on getting a clear and memorable soundbite across, rather than a thoughtful conversation. Fifteen minutes would be considered a very long segment on most television or radio programmes.

Over the years, it has been my experience that politicians in general do better in longer, more relaxed and wide ranging conversation than they do in compressed and combative segments. And yet, the media tends to serve up largely what the public wants – so there’s an element of the chicken and the egg.

The downside to all of this is that it does rather create a siege mentality amongst politicians where openly questioning or exploring the party line in public is a risky business. Senator Doherty, for example, was much more willing in Wexford to express (reasoned) disagreement with Mairead McGuinness on a particular issue than she would be on RTE or Newstalk, where the disagreement might become the story. With that pressure removed, and in a more relaxed setting, politicians were obviously and perhaps understandably more open to expressing, and considering, a wider range of views.

The problem is, voters will rarely, if ever, see their politicians in that setting. And the politicians will rarely open up to their voters with the same level of frankness that they would, in that setting.

Our democracy is probably the poorer for it.


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