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Men of Grit and Experience

There is hardly a telephone pole from Castledermot to Celbridge that is not adorned by the countenance of a candidate appealing for the support of the voters in the General Election.  Behind each of these electoral images is a flesh-and-blood candidate putting his or her credentials forward to the public. The aim of each is to be in a position to influence the policies that will shape Ireland’s social and economic circumstances in the coming years. And while every past election has had its impact on the life of the nation there is a real sense that the General Election of 2011 is freighted with more significance than most of its predecessors. The choices made by the Irish electorate over the next few weeks will have a profound influence on the future of the country. All the more reason then to take a step back from the heady pace of current political drama and look to how the voters of a bygone era approached the weighty task of choosing the representatives that would lead the country through difficult times. Just a century ago the editorial column of this paper reflected on the responsibilities of candidates who were putting themselves forward for elections in 1911. Although the elections were for the local rather than national level of government the considerations were equally serious. Writing in advance of the County Council elections of 1911 the then editor of the Leader set out the kind of qualities required of a new generation of leaders: ‘ The more our public life has developed the more imperative of has become the necessity for public men of grit, experience and constructive abilities.’ He was equally clear about the characteristics which would not be welcomed: ‘The men of merely mediocre qualities will … be less and less in demand.’ The assumption that the candidates were male reflects the almost complete absence of women from elected politics in the early years of the twentieth century. Things have improved for the female politician but not greatly – one hundred years later and women account for less than one in every five of elected positions. Returning to the realities of politics in 1911 the Leader editor stressed that the voters had responsibilities too. He stressed that the elector who casts a vote for ‘an inferior article’ was the poorest patriot and the most dangerous kind of enemy to his country. He went on to say that it was obvious to every voter that if the standard of public life was not kept up the country would not be able to develop or push ahead out of its difficulties. He felt the need to warn voters that ‘Unworthy local circumstances and a hundred and one dodges may be resorted to in order to get at the voter.’  Warming to the theme he remarked that ‘rogues often seek office and palm themselves off as highly inspired persons.’  However it was also apparent that the writer did not have the highest estimation of the electorate’s ability to do the right thing: ‘… the voter is human, sometimes ignorant and often without any scruple of conscience in the matter of his vote.’ And he had very little time for voters who knowingly elected a rogue candidate to office. He opined that where that that happened: ‘the morality of the voters had touched a very low water-mark … a constituency so degraded is almost past praying for.’  #While the Leader editor was in a sermonising mode he concluded his exhortation to the voters of Kildare on a note which suggested that there was also very positive characteristics to be found in men who put themselves forward for public office. He said that the country needed men whose minds are disciplined. The arrival of such men to public office would curb the ‘useless and hopeless ineptitude which makes a laughing stock of some of our assemblies.’ And he concluded on a hopeful note, one which could be brought forward by a century and just as easily applied to the elections of 2011: ‘Ireland has splendid material for the creation of a decent public life, and a decent public life can only spring from a healthy public opinion and the awakening of a conscience in the voters.’

Series no: 215

Liam Kenny in his 'Looking Back' column from the Leinster Leader of February 10, 2011 reflects on Kildare County Council elections a hundred years ago. Our thanks to Liam.

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