There Is Much We Could Learn From The Irish

March 17, 2015


In 2014, I landed an internship in Ireland at Dublin City Hall with the former lord mayor of Dublin, Councillor Gerry Breen. Prior to that, I had interned in the town administrator’s office in Amherst, where I learned the day-to-day operations of a municipality. I came into the position in Dublin with a decent understanding of budget allocations, municipal operations, and local-level campaigning.

I learned a great deal from my work in Irish politics, and I was impressed with their ability to pursue a relatively friendly discourse, just as engaging in angry dialogue seems to be a trend that has gained much press here in the U.S. Ours is an excellent system, but it seems to me that it’s never a bad idea to consider some fine-tuning to make it even better.

While I was comfortable with and capable of doing most of what was requisitioned from me, working with Irish politicians presented me with unforeseen challenges and opportunities, and some new insights on how politics can be done.

Most notably was the night I was called to a political meeting at a hotel and was greeted by Ireland’s Prime Minister – known as the Taoiseach – Enda Kenny, as well as the members of his cabinet. Unlike political meetings in the United States, this gathering was very informal.

Naturally we were all dressed nicely, but I was sitting next to the minister of state and across from the minister of transportation. There was no seating chart to say who could sit where or why. Politics in Ireland are very tribal, so each of the political parties (Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein) have a sense of egalitarianism. Interns and assistants were sitting with ministers, the Taoiseach was sitting with donors, city and county councilors sat with members of the public who vote Fine Gael.

This was just one example of how political discussions and business are done in more of a straight-up fashion, and direct conversation is encouraged. There is much less formality and political bureaucracy in Ireland than in the U.S. That’s because people there are close to their elected officials and hold them accountable on a personal level.

From what I observed during my time in Ireland, once I got past some of the challenges of the vernacular, I came to believe there are three aspects of Irish politics and process that America could benefit from exploring further: amiability, accountability and approachability.

Amiability is something I noticed from the beginning. It is protocol that, if a meeting is to take place during the day, Irish political representatives will gather for tea and biscuits before the meeting. During this time, there is laughter, handshakes and, at times, fruitful conversation. This is not to say that once the meeting starts the representatives will not be cutthroat – but it is in these moments that they are allowed to see each other as human beings, not simply political animals.

I believe that, by seeing this side of each other, there is an inherent camaraderie and an increase in the ability to reach across the aisles and debate legislation that will benefit constituents.

Related to this is transparency. The prime minister’s question time is a practice held in most countries with parliamentary systems, and Ireland is no exception.

The prime minister and TD’s convene in Parliament, specifically the Dail Eireann, or the lower house. The leader of the opposition then gets to question the prime minister on current events, policy, strategy and any scandal at the moment. Imagine Speaker of the House John Boehner and a handful of Republicans going head-to-head with President Obama. This allows for almost complete exposure and transparency and it is open to the public in a limited number of seats in a gallery and on national television. I would love to see this take place in the U.S.

Finally, if you were to stop a Dubliner on the street and ask them their opinion of politics, the response would probably be negative. Even so, there will be a passion behind what they are saying. In fact, the individual will probably tell you that they are related to or grew up with a well-known government official or that their child attends the same school as a senior government official’s kids.

This personal connection allows for a certain level of approachability in Irish government. Of course, Ireland is only the relative size of Illinois, but I would venture to guess that most residents of Illinois could not point out the governor’s personal residence in a neighborhood, as the some Irish can with the Taoiseach.

What was most amazing to me is that those representing the people in government there encourage this relationship. In fact, former Lord Mayor Gerry Breen, whom I worked for, put his personal cellphone number on all of his campaign literature and was constantly taking calls from everyday people like you and me.

Tell me the last time an American politician did that.

Patrick O’Mara, of Amherst, is a senior at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., where he majors in political science and international studies.