Tuesday 12 May 2009

Lee the Candidate

No small amount of furore surrounded George Lee’s putting himself forward as a candidate in the forthcoming by-election. It made big news with his former employer for obvious reasons, not least that he gave them practically no notice. The story made headlines everywhere. Lee was talked about in canteens and snugs and both up and downmarket coffee shops. Sunday paper and Irish Times columnists weighed in. And of course the political blogosphere revved up with its spin on Lee’s sudden emergence.

The initial burst of excitment subsided, giving way to a more sober analysis which in turn is now giving way to less generous comment which is beginning to be laced with the Irish version of cynicism; that is to say, cynicisim with wee doses of begrudgery and ill wishes! (though I accept RTE should have a tighter rule book and Lee a better awareness of the ethical issues in the step between journalism and poltics)

When all is said and done I welcome Lee’s decision to contest a Dáil seat. The reason is simple and has nothing to do with how early Lee, with vetinary precision, diagnosed the ill health of our Celtic Tiger. Nor has it to do with his politics (After all he has joined Fine Gael!). Lee is unlikely to suggest any major change in the balance of power in Irish capitalism. He’s more likely to advocate more of the same model, just done better and with tigher ethical standards of governance.

So the reason I welcome Lee is neither politcs nor economics as such. I welcome Lee because what Irish politics desperately lacks is the ability to attract people who have seasoned experience and tested competence in diverse fields. Recall, we live in a country where, owing to parish allegiances and our peculiar political culture, people are elected for who they are, not what they know or how they are qaulified. Our ‘top three’, Cowen, Lenihan and Coughlan inherited their politcal dynasties. And in the two upcoming by-elections, one is being contested by the brother of our former Taoiseach and the other by the son of the former occupant. In other words, our political culture has a particular capacity for replicating the same genes over and over. (And I want to say, the two men involved have every right to run. And there are other candidates in the fold).

But I say Lee’s decision is positive if it can represent even a slight change in the profile of those who run for public office. Surely it would be for the better if we could see accountants, architects, business people, community activits, pyschologists, etc. etc. making their various expertise and experience available to help govern the country. Yes, we have lawyers, teachers, doctors, accountants, etc already, but the bulk of them are those who trained but came from a political background and entered politics early. I am talking about finding highly successful and talented people — from any field — and getting them to switch to take on elected office.

Back to Lee. The hype surrounding his announcement showed how truly unusual it is for a well known figure to enter the fray. And yet in terms of what he represents the whole thing was vastly overdone. Vincent Browne lamented that Lee has now tied his great talent in the chains of party dogma and his contribution to this country in consequence will be greatly diminished. What a load of rubbish!

First: Are we saying that George Lee’s early call on the Tiger tells us that he is some kind of one in a million guru whose wise, independent voice is now needed to guide us to safety? The truth is that almost everyone knew what Lee knew. And those who didn’t were willfully ignoring the reality. We had the OECD, ESRI, IMF, National Competitiveness Council and swathes of independent (?) economists studying our economy and giving us warnings and advice. (In fact, all Lee was doing was reading these reports and passing on the message - can no-one else be found to do that?).

Second, Browne implys that the best or wisest voices should be kept out of the political system (so they have no direct access to power). But locking out wisdom - as our political culture does — sits tightly among the chief causes of our political paralysis.

And that is why we need new voices, new talent, a wider net for drawing in seasoned experts from all walks of life, into the heart of our moribund political clique. but we need many more if they are to sweep into our system and blow it open.

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