By-elections and bonfires

This blog originally appeared as a column in The Andersonstown News

Micheál Martin is right about one thing: governments do not like by-elections. Why? Because people feel free to give their government a motivating kick in the bum, while at the same time not risking the downfall of said government. It’s more a case of “Hey –  you’re where you are because we put you there. Assume nothing”.

That’s what happened with the Dublin Bay South by-election a while back. As with most by-elections, the turn-out was shamefully low: 35%. So around  one-third of the people in that constituency decided who’d be the new TD for Dublin Bay South. I know this can’t-be-bothered is typical of most by-elections and in other states besides the south of Ireland, but it still stinks. What were these absentees doing that was so important they hadn’t time to vote?

Fine Gael made at least two mistakes: they chose a political new-comer, James Geoghan, as their standard-bearer; and they tried to frame the election as a FG v Sinn Féin head-to-head.

James Geoghan may have limited political experience but he’s got a pedigree background. Both his parents and two of his grandparents were Supreme Court judges. James went to the elite Jesuit Gonzaga College and to UCD, where he got a First Class Honours degree in Politics and Sociology. He is a barrister; he also had in his Dublin Bay South run the total backing of Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael. And yet he ended up losing to Ivana Bacik.

Ivana grew up in the affluent Rathgar-Terenure area of Dublin. She attended the fee-paying secondary school Alexandra College. She got a law degree from Trinity College Dublin and a Master’s in Law  from the London School of Economics.  She is a lawyer and a lecturer in Trinity College Dublin.

Does Ivana sound like one of the many in Dublin who are poor and struggling to keep up mortgage repayments?  You must be kidding. And yet she’s been a highly-regarded member of the Labour Party for years.

Dublin Bay South is a constituency bursting with money and privilege, so I suppose either of the two candidates would have represented the interests of their constituents.  What’s that, Virginia? Is practising and teaching Law what could be called labouring? Mmm …maybe pass on that one.

But while Dublin was counting votes, Belfast was counting pallets. The good people of Tiger’s Bay built a modest pallets-bonfire. Having visited it, new DUP broom Jeffrey  Donaldson declared that this  particular bonfire had no flags (actually it had one), posters or other emblem commonly found on other, bigger bonfires. What he didn’t say was that standing on top of it puts you within golf-ball-whacking range of the nationalist New Lodge. What’s more,  loud loyalist music is within ear-drum-damaging range of the New Lodge, especially when played between 1.00 am an 6.00 am.

Since the bonfire, plus the golf-balls, plus the music,  were clearly aimed at upsetting the good people of New Lodge, Belfast City Council contractors could have gone in and put the bonfire where there’d be less opportunity to whack golf-balls or keep New Lodge nationalists up at night with sectarian music.  Unfortunately, the PSNI said it couldn’t or wouldn’t put in protection for the contractors. So the SDLP’s Nichola Mallon and Sinn Féin’s Deirdre Hargey tried to bring a case against the PSNI’s refusal to protect contractors. They lost.

Some facts that can’t be dodged: Bonfires are bad for the environment; they risk injury and gobble up emergency services’ time and money; they encourage division and sectarianism; they are an odd way to celebrate a culture.

Yet year after tedious year, they are built and destroyed; which come to think of it, is a fairly good metaphor for what unionism is doing to itself these days.

We need a de Klerk figure, unionism needs a de Klerk figure, forgiveness and reconciliation need a de Klerk figure. Instead we get bonfires and bigotry.

Charlie Haughey was right: this is a failed state.

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