POLITICS – PAST AND PRESENT

by ehistoryadmin on August 27, 2016

Politics – present and past

Liam Kenny

It’s all over bar the shouting but there could be a lot of shouting yet in the echo chamber of Irish parliamentary life. Over the past long weekend an army of counters, talliers, officials, journalists, extended families of candidates, and political anoraks populated the cavernous yellow event centre at Punchestown – which itself features on the Dáil record in controversy over spending priorities – and parsed and analysed the arcane world of quotas, transfers and eliminations. The Irish system of voting is certainly not designed for easy understanding. Its full name – “Proportional Representation – Single Transferable Vote” is convoluted enough without going into the mechanics of the system. And yet it is something of a national treasure – one might say “part of what we are”. Twice in the twentieth century Governments tried to replace it by the more straightforward “first past the post” system. This writer is old enough to remember the 1968 Referendum held to overturn Proportional Representation and the seductive leaflets from the Government side which presented an illustration with the slogan “One apple one man” to highlight the simplicity of the “first past the post” system and another graphic with the slogan “One apple three men” to point up the supposed irrationality of Proportional Representation.

And yet on both occasions the Irish public rejected the proposal to change and opted to hold firmly on to Proportional Representation (PR). The fact that in both cases it was Fianna Fáil governments who championed the change and who in the 1950s and 1960s had overwhelming support at the polls for everything else they wanted to do, shows the extent to which the public felt possessive towards PR. The same sort of sentiment was in the air in the early 2000s when the proposal for electronic voting was being pushed forward. The irony here was that electronic voting would not take one whit from the redistributive characteristics of PR. Even more ironically electronic voting would allow for the full potential of PR to be realised as under the manual system of counting only limited parcels of votes are counted when a candidate has a surplus from the second count onwards. Electronic voting would have ensured that every preference was counted at every count. However again there was public resistance. It was as if the ritual playing out of the manual PR count extending over days and providing a gradual unfolding of how the public mood had changed was what mattered. Electronic voting delivered the results too quickly and clinically – as would first past the post voting.

And yet for all the Irish attachment to PR that extends to the present day it is the British regime that has to be credited with the introduction of the system in this country. The first widespread use of PR was not at a parliamentary election but at the local government level when the County Council elections of 1920 were held under the PR system. The British felt that PR would protect the position of the minority Protestant population in Ireland and at least give it some chance of electing its own representatives in contrast to the “first past the post” which prevails in England into modern times.

The scenes that played out at Punchestown continue a long tradition close to the heart of Irish democratic values. The long count may seem frustrating in an era where everything is expected to be delivered instantly but in many ways the PR system with all its convolution acts as a way of smoothing out the shocks in the system and easing the transfer from an outgoing parliament to its successor.

1916 Seminar

While current affairs dominate the news agenda, the political past cannot be forgotten. The torrent of 1916 related activities might seem a little overwhelming at times but some events stand out among others. The Kildare Archaeological Society has landed a big fish in the history pool for its all-day seminar on Kildare in 1916 which takes place at Killashee House Hotel, Naas, on Saturday, 12 March. The stand-out speaker is the urbane Professor Roy Foster, celebrated historian of Ireland’s revolution and its cultural context. Prof. Foster is a convincing commentator in the media across Britain and Ireland on Ireland’s revolutionary story and is noted for drawing attention to angles of the story wider than the shooting and fighting narrative. His recent book “Vivid Faces – The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923” suggests that the generation of people who propelled the 1916 Rising was intent on throwing off shackles other than the generally emphasised one of British rule. He makes the case that the young bloods of 1916 were strongly motivated by a need to kick back against the conservatism of their forebears. He further argues that the power of relationships among the younger generation – including unconventional relationships such as lesbianism – was central to unleashing the energies on which revolution thrived.

Prof Foster’s book gives honourable mention to Seumas O’Kelly, editor of the Leinster Leader in years before 1916, and who was prominent in the dynamic nationalist theatrical life which foregrounded the Rising.

While Roy Foster’s contribution will draw most attention there is an impressive list of contributors who will highlight specific contexts to the Rising. The programme includes presentations by: Dr Darragh Gannon, of the National Museum, on the Rising in the context of WW1; Mario Corrigan, Kildare County Council County Library, on Bodenstown, John Devoy and Domhnall O’Buachalla; Dr Seamus O’Maitiú on the growth of the Gaelic League in the county; Gerard Long on the National Library, Kildare Street, and 1916; Brig-Gen (ret’d) John Martin (Kilcullen) on military aspects of 1916. The seminar will be chaired by Prof Ray Gillespie of Maynooth University and includes time for the essential networking events of lunch and coffee breaks.

Booking enquiries can be made to Society President, Hugh Crawford at 087 9072994 or hughcrawford@gmail.com. But hurry because – as with the General Election candidates – everybody is looking for a seat. Leinster Leader 1 March 2016, Series no: 474.

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