I wrote this in 2011 for teaandtoast.ie, the site of which seems to be gone now. I’m pretty surprised to see my opinion hasn’t changed since then!
What people who argue for political reform all ignore…
“The one man minority opinion whose
time hasn’t come but 20 years later some circuit court clerk digs it up at
3 in the morning.”
This is one of my favourite quotes from the West Wing, and it’s not even from a main character.
It sums up so well the importance of making your case, of expressing your opinion and fighting your fight even when there is no chance of your argument winning. It’s not just about honour or doing the right thing, though it is honourable and indeed often the right thing to be a minority or even a lone voice standing up and being heard on one side of an issue.
Seeing Micheal D Higgins make a passionate, intelligent and powerful speech on the minimum wage, and the ideal of a real citizens’ Republic really reminded me of the above quote. He knew the government would win the vote, and the cut would become policy. He still made the speech, and didn’t hold back one bit. The video of that speech was posted by dozens of my friends on facebook, and liked by dozens and dozens more. Not only did Deputy Higgins give voice to the anger of so many people, he also set a baseline, for with such passion and even anger on the issue he made it inevitable that the next government will need to reverse that decision, or at least will face massive pressure to do so. Anyone looking to fight this issue, or even just raise it with their TD will likely have seen that speech and been inspired by it. That is the power the of the dissenting opinion.
With all the talk about political reform, it’s important to remember that the biggest influence on our political system comes from those who inhabit it. If more opposition TDs gave speeches like Deputy Higgins’, or even like some of Deputy Noonan’s lately or others in their all too rare moments of inspiration, we would have improved our democracy without any referendum or lengthy report. Unfortunately, this also means that the best designed system in the world can still be cheapened by TDs who don’t bother to contribute to the debate at all, that’s you Bertie, Jackie, and Noel Grealish. It will still be undermined by TDs who use their time to go for the cheap dig, or the one liner they hope will get them in the Dáil sketch, or the outburst they hope will go viral. Not looking at anyone in particular on that one…
The same is even more true, if it was possible, of the Seanad. Every time there is another call for it to be scrapped the Senators flap and whinge and make a show of themselves yet again. This isn’t true for all of them of course, but too many are using the Seanad as a stepping stone, a consolation prize, a status enhancer or even a cash cow. Whether or not this can be changed is unclear. I’m inclined to hope that it could be. But even now, underneath all the waffle in the lower house, some Senators are fighting the good fight. This past year there has been much work done to develop Ireland’s plan to tackle the aberration that is Female Genital Mutilation. They have come together across party lines, and have discussed the issue and the legislation with an integrity and intelligence that is, sadly, surprising. Even though this doesn’t get coverage, and the legislation might not get passed before the election, it is good work and it will make it that bit easier for the next person who takes up this cause. We should perhaps not be so quick to abolish the place where this progress happened, however slow it may be.
While popular opinion is turning towards the push for political reform we shouldn’t stop arguing for our representatives to do a better job, because if the cute hoorism is allowed to continue, reform will have been for nothing.
All the great moments of progress in our society have come after long periods of individuals and groups fighting for the change, against the odds, and getting nowhere. Benjamin Franklin and the Quakers were not even permitted to have the issue of slavery discussed in the US Congress. But they kept trying, and kept leafleting and talking to anyone who would listen. It’s easy to look back and pick out examples of such pioneering efforts, it’s a lot harder to see them as the happen around us now. We have become very quick to dismiss any efforts at change that don’t deliver results instantly. We don’t want to get involved in a campaign that can only promise incremental, painstaking change. I think we need to remember the importance of the dissenting opinion, of the one man (or woman) making a speech that fights for progress, in the face of unbeatable odds. And we need to appreciate to power our politicians have, even those in opposition. They could do with appreciating it too, and making better use of it.