As Tip O’Neill said, all politics is local — make sure to have a say

With the elections tomorrow you can expect a few perennial political clichés — perennicals? — to surface over the next few days.

One of those clichés is absolutely guaranteed to make an appearance as the boxes are opened.

I refer to the imperishable line which will be dished out at ballot-counting centres everywhere in Ireland, in any spot where city and county councillors and MEPs are being elected: “All politics is local.”

Avoid any drinking games which are based on its appearance.

The fact that there are local elections being decided makes the saying particularly appropriate, and even more appropriate when you look at the man generally associated with that saying in the first place.

Tip O’Neill — a resonant name for those of us old enough to remember the news broadcasts of the 80s — was speaker of the US House of Representatives for a decade from the mid-70s, and well-known here in Ireland for the work he did on behalf of this country.

In 1985, he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Cork — his grandparents had emigrated from Mallow in the 19th century to Massachusetts — and the relevant news clip is available to watch on the RTÉ Archive website.

What the clip doesn’t show, of course, is the sequel to the ceremony, which occurred just as Mr O’Neill was making his way out of Cork City Hall — back to what looked like a minibus, judging by that news clip.

He was buttonholed by a council employee selling tickets for a raffle.

People living in Cork have specific issues that need to be addressed, but you don’t get to complain about them if you don’t participate.
People living in Cork have specific issues that need to be addressed, but you don’t get to complain about them if you don’t participate.

Would the visitor put his hand in his pocket and contribute to the cause in question? (I’m tempted to just say it was a fundraiser for the Northern Harriers, or the Barrack Street Band, but that would be sheer speculation).

He certainly would: Mr O’Neill fished a fiver out of his wallet and handed it over.

A politician is always campaigning, even when he’s 3,000 miles outside his own constituency.

It was characteristic of Tip O’Neill’s attitude to the public when you consider another quote often attributed to him: “Anyone who comes into your office with an idea, and it may be the silliest idea in the world, listen to them and never ridicule them.”

Having that kind of instinctive response to a situation is the kind of thing which marks a natural politician. Readers may have noticed this in canvassers and candidates who have visited them recently.

There are candidates to whom this response comes naturally, conveying an interest in people which resonates immediately with the public. There are those who struggle with even a reasonable imitation of that connection. This is a division which exists at all levels in politics.

In this columnist’s years in Leinster House, there were plenty of politicians around whose charisma and charm were plain to see, people whose friendly manner and persuasive opinions made an impression, even in the most casual encounters.

Sometimes this could become slightly overcooked. In a queue for scones one morning, a minister asked this columnist where he was from.

“Cork?” he said. “Cork people are some of my favourite people. Along with Dublin people. And northerners. And people from Galway. And Mayo. And Clare, of course. And . . .” (Eventually the only people who weren’t among his favourites seemed to come from a remote village in northern Leitrim.)

Conversely, there were others of whom the kindest description would be that the charm was well hidden

That was a surprisingly crowded field given how politicians rely on the good will of voters.

The man who berated his secretary at the top of his voice out in the front hall of Leinster House, in front of a horrified group of visitors, probably takes the biscuit.

(Identity available on production of a small bribe. Like a biscuit, coincidentally.)

Sadly, I can’t in good conscience compare the local election candidates in my own corner of Cork this year — as my front door remains untroubled by canvassers.

The closest I got to meeting anyone came when I was working in the front room one afternoon, and two lads with leaflets hovered for a minute at the gate.

I waved them in, but they seemed to interpret my companionable invitation differently — and fled.

This is something that one or two pals of this column have also mentioned in recent days: The advent of quiet canvassing.

More than once, I have come through my own hall and seen some flyers and leaflets poking through the letter box.

Voting to preserve our democracy is the strongest rebuttal that can be offered to these malign actors, writes Michael Moynihan.
Voting to preserve our democracy is the strongest rebuttal that can be offered to these malign actors, writes Michael Moynihan.

They’re unaccompanied by the sharp rap on the door which heralds an invitation to meet the candidate. The best was a gentle click from the letterbox at 6am as a leaflet dropped through.

I regret these stealthy operations have supplanted the forthright exchanges of yore, depriving us of some classic encounters.

Late on a Wednesday evening in the Dáil bar, a TD or senator might be prevailed upon to run through experiences on the doorstep that ranged from the surreal to the slightly threatening.

One representative from a rural area had a back catalogue of encounters which seemed to come straight out of Pat McCabe.

“Hello, I’m —, I’m standing for the Dáil. Do you have a vote?”

“No, my Dad does but he’s on the toilet. Do you want to talk to him? It’s upstairs.”

Or: “Hello, I’m —, standing for the Dáil, can I count on your vote this Friday?”

“Could you reverse the car out through those gates for me? I’m not great with the reversing in that car. If you do I can guarantee you two No 1s here. Here are the keys.”

Or: “Hello, I’m —, standing for the Dáil, do you — I’m sorry, is that shotgun loaded?”

“It is.”

“Sorry to disturb, let me close the door there for you.”

Well, maybe quiet canvassing has its place sometimes.

On a serious note, readers need to vote tomorrow

People living in Cork have specific issues and challenges that need to be addressed, but you don’t get to complain about those issues and challenges if you don’t participate in the process.

There’s a wider consideration as well. You can barely open the paper now without reading how the basics of our democracy are under constant attack on several different fronts— through AI and deepfakes, via social media manipulation and rogue state interference, by amadáns who seek to intimidate.

Voting to preserve our democracy is the strongest rebuttal that can be offered to these malign actors. Exercising that basic right is a privilege which is not enjoyed in vast swathes of the globe, and should not be taken for granted.

The very best of luck to those candidates who put themselves forward out of a desire to help others and do some good. Just remember one of Tip’s tips: It’s easier to run for office than to run the office.

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