We know what people think of politicians. As a group they’re down there with journalists and lawyers. But how about the other way round? How do politicians regard the public.?
Well, there’s the famous comment of one Dick Tuck, after having been defeated by none other than Richard Nixon: “The people have spoken…the bastards”. In a sense it’s natural that politicians should be fearful of and resent the people, since the people are their bosses. It’s easy for us the public to forget that. We employ them, we pay them.
But sometimes politicians are so fearful, they play to the lowest common denominator. There’s a recent report in The Ballymoney Times, for example, where a unionist councillor is rightly expressing his outrage that a union flag was taken down, stolen from a pole in the area (No, Virginia, there’s no mention of whether it was a street-light pole or a flag-pole, but you can probably guess). He calls on the Sinn Féin councillors in the area to condemn such actions. Which is a bit like a goal-keeper placing a ball on the penalty spot and then going round behind the goal to have an energy drink and a sit-down.
Both Daithi McKay and Philip McGuigan of Sinn Féin do as requested. They condemn the theft of the union flag, an act which it was claimed had heightened tensions in the town.
Here’s McGuigan: “I have no difficulty speaking out against the removal of a flag in Finvoy or anywhere else for that matter. No one should be engaging in any activity anywhere in this Borough with the intention of causing offence, raising tensions, or fuelling sectarianism.”
And here’s McKay: “Hate crime from any quarter must be condemned outright. The attack on Ballycastle Orange Hall does not represent the people that live there.”
But they both go on to show that local councillors are failing to show leadership. Tyres were burnt, election posters of Sinn Féin councillors were burnt, the Irish tricolour was burnt on bonfires in the area. Yet the police took no action and the councillors, according to McKay and McGuigan, kept schtum. The Sinn Féin councillors – rightly – condemn these actions as hate crimes: they engender a hatred of the people whose image is burnt, and they show contempt for the people who see the tricolour as their national flag.
Did the unionist councillors know what was happening? You betcha. Did they denounce these nasty, hate-encouraging actions? Not on your life. Were someone unfamiliar with our twisted little story to be told that the police knew in advance these crimes were to be committed but did nothing about them, they would scarcely believe it. Blatant sectarianism, nasty coat-trailing and the cops do nothing? Hardly credible. Just as it’s hardly credible that a councillor would get upset over a stolen Union flag and yet feel no call to speak out against illegal tyre-burning, poster burning of local republican councillors and the burning of the national flag of Ireland. Why didn’t they speak out? Very probably because they figure it’s better to pander to the lowest common denominator rather than risk alienating a few knuckle-dragger votes at the next local election.
None of the Ballymoney councillors, to the best of my knowledge, is French. But they might well feel a sense of identity with the words of the 19th-century French democrat Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: ”There go the people – I must follow them, for I am their leader.”