Belfast Telegraph

Dole woes of Danny Kennedy are a poignant reminder that our politicians are only human

It's all to easy to hit out at our politicians, but how many of us would - or could - fill their shoes, asks Gail Walker

Former UUP MLA Danny Kennedy
Former UUP MLA Danny Kennedy

Ex-Newry and Armagh MLA Danny Kennedy's admission that he's now signing on the dole should give us all pause for thought when it comes to our all-too-easy contempt for our politicians.

The former Minister gently highlighted the irony of signing on for Jobseeker's Allowance at Newry Jobs and Benefits Office - a place he'd last visited while in charge of Employment in the Assembly.

With typical stoicism, Mr Kennedy also said of the turnaround in his personal fortunes, "That's life and that's politics", pointing out that he'd been fortunate to have enjoyed "well-paid" work since leaving school.

During the recent stalemate at Stormont, some commentators have made mileage out of the fact that elected MLAs were drawing a salary at the same time as being unable to carry out the full range of activities on behalf of their constituents that they were elected to do.

It's the sort of comment that shows that political comment here can often be as stale as the political debate they comment upon.

If Mr Kennedy's circumstances do anything, it is to remind us that politicians are human beings too, subject to worries, fears and disappointments just like the rest of us, but much more prone to public humiliation as a matter of course than the rest of us.

His defeat at the polls will have hurt - after all, he was in politics during the Troubles when he could have paid a much higher price for his political views. Politicians are not some breed of scapegoat we can all feel morally superior to, as if they are responsible for the bigotry we harbour and the intemperate views we express.

We know the form: "They're incompetent ... they couldn't run a p*** up in a brewery ... they couldn't survive in the real world ...this is all their fault ..."

This side-of-the-mouth blether is all aimed at helping us feel somehow innocent. That's the point of scapegoats - they take away all our own shortcomings, moral weaknesses, equivocations and evasions.

Except who elected our politicians in the first place? Every election, we moan about the same old politics - when the same old politics only reflect what we really want. If we have sectarian politics that's because we - to varying extents, admittedly - view our lives through that prism.

Rather than blithely condemning 'them' we should contemplate the old adage about getting the kind of leadership we deserve.

It suits us to leave the whole sorry mess to the politicians. Our only engagement with politics comes when we troop to our local primary school and cast our ballot. Not for us the soul-crushing tedium of branch meetings or council sub-committee meetings to discuss new systems of bin collection or staffing the constituency office to listen to the problems with our drains.

Before reaching the giddy heights of Stormont, many public representatives will have spent years pounding their political fiefdoms, building bases, listening to the people, turning up for community events for, in purely financial terms, nothing.

We can easily dismiss all that work by saying 'they' are driven by vast egotism and petty vanity, a desire to be 'the man/woman in the big picture' while we, epitomes of modesty, wouldn't dream of imposing ourselves on the public. But we never ask ourselves what kind of egomania is it that dreams of being a junior minister in the Department of Paperclips?

Few of us would risk the humiliation of running for public office. You can talk of political tides the like but rejection - and as Enoch Powell famously said, all political careers end in failure of some sort - must sting, a fact of which Danny Kennedy is well aware. With the wisdom of a philosopher, he said: "It can be a blood sport … But when political defeat comes, there is a jolt with it. When you win you find out about other people, when you lose you find out about yourself."

Most of us prefer to dodge that kind of learning.

So, we find ourselves demanding 'they' sort it out because after all that's what we are paying 'them' for. As if politics is straightforward, like plumbing or accountancy. It isn't.

Politics is the messy stuff of life, of managing disagreement, of patching together shoddy compromises and generally keeping the show on the road. Sometimes, it is just very, very difficult.

Mr Kennedy's disclosures show that politicians are just as human as we are - and yet they can also be the subjects of our arbitrary malice. Since the collapse of the Stormont institutions, the cry has been taken up that 'their' pay should be docked because 'they' are not working. It's easy, popular and deeply satisfying to say that out loud.

But it's also facile, hectoring and self-defeating. Just like that other popular lament - the calibre of our politicians. Which is just another low blow. As with Mr Kennedy, many are people of real character coupled with a genuine desire to serve their community. But, seriously, if we want to talk about attracting bright new talent into Stormont, why would anyone contemplate a career in politics and be subject to having their salary docked upon arbitrary and retrospective definitions of acceptable performance? Why would anyone give up a career in teaching or law and take a punt on being an MLA?

Who helped to create the conditions for deadlock? Many of the public now baying for the salary cuts. Is it really fair to punish MLAs, who have little to do with the stalled negotiations? Only a handful of them have any proximity to real political power. Most are lobby cannon fodder and constituency managers. They may have higher ambitions, but only a few will be fortunate enough to get even close to realising those.

Politicians don't get much thanks. Sometimes they don't deserve them. But would you do it? I don't mean give a speech or even stand at one election. I mean devote your life to it, 24/7. With absolutely no guarantee of success, and great odds on failure?

For every one politician prepared to listen to a little old lady complain about the council expecting her to wheel her own bin to her front gate, there are 10,000 wannabe prime ministers on social media deciding it is time to invade - or not invade - Iraq.

Only one of those situations has anything at all to do with our wellbeing as citizens. The hard miles of politics, trod by the Danny Kennedys of this world, involve little old ladies and wheelie bins.

Belfast Telegraph


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