In the wake of this year’s local elections, activists from the right across the broad left were left in a state of astonished mourning, cursing an electorate that didn't turn up on the day. One Sinn Féin office was heard being described as “like a wake-house” by an activist in the days following the count.
Natalie Treacy’s post-#LE19 election analysis is worth reading, not only because it (unintentionally) speaks volumes about the state of local representative democracy in this jurisdiction, but also because it has something to say about where Sinn Féin, and indeed a lot of social-democractic/leftish political groups go wrong when it comes to their engagement with the people they represent.
So it's a week now since the elections and I received that devastating phone call to tell me that the people of my core area's didnt bother to take 10 minutes out of their day to go and vote for me and that I am probably not going to be 're elected. Now this would be perfectly fine ,if I hadn't of worked my arse off for the last 5 year's on behalf of the people I represent. This would be perfectly fine ,if you the people I represent didnt believe I deserved to be 're elected.
This would be perfectly fine, if you believed that our council would be better off without Sinn Féin fighting your corner in Fingal but NO, this was simply because the people in my core area's just didn't bother to come out and vote!
As I sat in a room last night with all my other Sinn Féin elected comrades from across Dublin and listened to them all talking about what we did wrong in the elections because we did make mistakes of course we did. And we will learn by our mistakes and we will move on. But one thing we can't do is work any harder than we did. Every one of our Councillor's and their team's worked their hardest on behalf of the community's they represent. However what stood out in the room most was the hurt. Yes the hurt ,hurt we all felt that our core area's didnt bother to take the time to come out and vote for us.
Some candidates and elected representatives put in serious graft. Others would sleep on the floor if there was work in the bed, and depend very much on the work of their party comrades. Whatever approach they take, it is very much seen that The Core Area is “their patch.” There are estates that some parties will not canvass because they don’t see it as worth their while. It’s a Shinner estate. Or it’s full of Fine Gaelers etc. If you’re in the business of running in elections, knowing where your core vote comes from has a value. You can focus your resources more efficiently (in theory) or you might use a different amount of posters because you are well known there.
The problem for Cllr. Treacy and others who think like her, is that they do not merely see their core area as the place in which they have received the majority of their electoral support in the past, but as a place where that past support entitles them to it forevermore. There is no suggestion here that Cllr. Treacy did not “work her arse off” for the past five years, but to look at an election result in which you didn’t do as well as you expected, and come to the conclusion that the fault lies with the residents of the core area who “didn’t bother to take ten minutes out of their day to go and vote,” displays a stunning level of arrogance. The absence of any reflection as to the reason why people didn’t flock to their polling stations reveals the sense of entitlement that is at the heart of clientelism and is embedded within Irish electoral politics.
It is clear that there was no pause to assess why people didn’t turn out to vote; Was the choice offered on the ballot so uninspiring that it wasn’t worth leaving the house “for ten minutes”? Or perhaps people see how limited the scope of local democracy is. Or maybe the electorate felt that the sitting councillors did not do what they expected them to do. If it is true that people couldn’t be arsed get off their sofas, it is also true that Sinn Féin failed to convince those people that they were worth getting up for.
There is no point in telling people that if they just vote, that the Councillors will then have “the power to make a difference in your area” when many people haven’t seen any betterment from voting Sinn Féin, or anyone else, in local elections. In fact, many will have seen a deterioration in their quality of life, finding it more and more difficult to get somewhere to live or a place for their child to go to school or transport to their place of work. Telling communities that when the funding gets cut and their area is neglected that “You need to take some responsibility for that. You need to realise that all the moaning in the world is not going to help you. You had the power to make a change and you just didn't bother to come out and vote” is a disgraceful way to speak to or about constituents. By that logic, the people who voted Labour in 2011 deserved to have their child benefit cut. It smacks of victim blaming and also attributes far more power to councillors than they actually have. We have a largely centralised budget system and councillors, regardless of how hard they work, don’t have a role in the Dáil budget process. Housing was one of the biggest issues of the election and councillors, in most cases, cannot deliver housing for people.
There are people voting for Sinn Féin since they turned 18 and are still living in their Ma’s boxroom with a child because they’re 10 years on the council house waiting list. That person doesn’t need to take responsibility for that, and she does not need to have it explained to her that moaning won’t help her. She knows it won’t, but she also knows that taking the ten minutes to go and vote isn’t going to help her either.
Cllr. Treacy, as an aside, concedes that people can vote for whoever they want - “that’s democracy” though other republicans and lefties have made similar comments about "people with short memories" voting Green, FF, and Labour. But some of us see the limitations of local and parliamentary democracy compared to community led direct action. Communities do not need anyone to stand up and fight for their corner. If the anti-water charges campaign taught us anything it’s that communities are already standing up for themselves. Compared to the results achieved through community organising and direct action there is nothing in representative democracy for us. Cllr. Treacy does not understand that abstention is not simply dispensing with responsibility for what happens within communities, but an acknowledgement that representative democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Of course, abstention does not always imply a conscious ideological break with liberal democracy, but, having seen no tangible improvement in their area in the years in which they voted SF and other poles of opposition, why should people in "core areas" feel obliged to go out and vote?
The central weakness of local government in the 26 Counties is that it is entirely controlled by a central government that is determined to dispense with the State delivering public services, moving closer towards dependency on the community and voluntary sector to deliver them instead. What most political parties fail to recognise is that the network of councils that we have do not provide a facility to engage in local democracy but rather, provides a system of local administration. Those that fail to see this hold up the local council as the place where decisions affecting your community are genuinely made, and they need to keep up that pretence in order to justify people voting for them, and by doing so they actually hamper any prospect of developing or engaging in something that might count as participatory democracy.
The political system is dominated and corrupted by the privileged, paralysed by clientelism and dynastic politics, and resistant to change - Sinn Féin General Election Manifesto 2011
For decades, people in Ireland have watched stories of corruption emerge to the point where it is an embedded part of the political structure. Cllr. Hugh McIlvaney, a man caught on video asking for “loads of money” in exchange for supporting a wind farm, which was subsequently aired on national television, was reelected in Monaghan this year. The line between McIlvaney’s corrupt “Give me money and I’ll give the nod to your wind farm” and a local councillor’s “Vote for me and I’ll help you get a house from the council” differ in financial value and beneficiary, but the mechanism is the same. Theoretically, the core area of an elected councillor’s vote is usually the one where they’ve engaged in the most clientist based exchanges (as per Cllr. Treacy’s post). For Sinn Féin representatives, it will likely be working class areas where the councillor or TD will exercise what influence they can to ensure that person gets their medical card or social housing, and the representative expects that they will receive a vote from that person in return.
The councillor’s power in this circumstance is not that they can actually get the medical card or the house, but they can help with form filling or find the right person in the council to speak to; they can navigate a bureaucracy that appears labyrinthine to many. In their view, doing this is them exercising their role and “standing up for their community” and entitles them to a vote, but providing a clear route to information and a pathway to the people that actually allocate resources is not, and should be mistaken for, actual local democracy. They are basically doing a job that citizens information and council offices exist for. The nature of clientelism in Irish politics and the withholding of direct information to the public means that many communities are beholden to the local councillors, and given that they have such little a role in resource allocation in the first place, spending their days writing housing representations for people, it doesn’t really matter which party is elected.
When a councillor tells a person that they are in X place on the housing list and there are some houses currently being renovated they could be in line for, it can often create the illusion that there is someone pulling strings on their behalf, “I’ve put a word in with the council. You’ll get a letter soon.” It doesn’t matter that all the Councillor did was write to an administrative officer to clarify their position on the housing list. Maintaining the appearance of having influence and control in the process of resource allocation suits the purpose of the political party.
It is a curious situation when politicians can simultaneously tell people they have the power to change the system but they will only have themselves to blame if the wrong decisions are made, given that politicians need to uphold the idea that people are powerless in the absence of “representation” in order to maintain their own positions as relevant. The benefit for the bureaucrats of the Council is that they don’t have to engage with the “great unwashed” day in, day out, leaving dialogue with the public to the politician. The politician can then portray themselves as a great worker for the community mandated to engage with the people who actually have the power to make decisions affecting people’s lives.
This theatre is made routine by the constituency office and the advice clinic generally staffed by the party loyal who carry out the brokerage with the council about fixing windows and doors; the attendance at funerals and residents association meetings and an apparition-like ability to appear when a local photographer arrives with a camera; followed by an increased omnipresence during election season. When the local representative goes from residents association to community policing forum to the local hospice fundraiser, it doesn’t matter that they didn’t actually do anything at any of them, but it matters that they were seen. Being seen equates to doing work, and in this respect they work their arses off for you, so you must vote for them in exchange. Except that there was no exchange as all they have done is claim credit for you getting what you were entitled to in the first place.
The State cannot keep pace with demands for state benefits, so the politician becomes the mediator, simultaneously managing the expectations of the community on behalf of the council and increasing their profile in the area by saying what they are doing is advocacy. The middle classes often have increased access and less need for state services so the politician services them differently. The local politician in this sphere is more concerned with getting them an Educate Together school rather than more social housing. They will have no role in it, but by making enquiries with the civil servant who has respect for their mandate they can market their work as being an integral part of the “democratic” process.
It is common practice for those who do the nerdwork of crunching election numbers to look at tallies from count centres to check *how many votes came from that box covering streets X and Y* against *how many people from streets X and Y were assisted by the councillor or TD*. Where there are fewer votes for the politician in the box than there were in the pool of people, the result is hurt feelings, because as far as the councillor is concerned, those people have gotten work for free. They did not pay for assistance with their votes. But ballots are not currency and real democracy is not a transaction. Nobody has a moral obligation to vote for the person who assisted with them navigating bureaucracy.
Maybe it’s time that Cllr. Treacy and others from SF, across the republican movement and the left considered the possibility that the problem is not their core constituents, it is a system that is not democratic and does not work for those communities.
⏩ Eimhéar Ní Fhearóir is an anarchist. She was previously involved with republican activism