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Soft-Lee Surrendering

If Ireland’s political system cannot exploit the talents of its parliamentarians like George Lee, writes Gavan Reilly, then the system needs fundamental reform

It began as a ripple – but it didn’t stay that way. It was 12:45pm and it was a dull Monday. The weekend had been politically quiet, with the political heat building around Máire Geoghegan-Quinn and the unravelling secrets of her financial affairs. Despite her appointment to the European Commission, it seemed that Geoghegan-Quinn was refusing to sacrifice her Dáil and ministerial pension – worth another €100,000 per year on to of her €350,000 commissioners’ salary.

[1]And then the news broke out. George Lee had quit the Dáil – and, what’s more, he had resigned his membership of Fine Gael, only nine months after joining and only eight months after being elected to represent the constituency of Dublin South in one of the highest by-election margins of victory since a young Brian Cowen took his seat in 1984.

News cycles were immediately torn to shreds. Having only released his statement to the public at a quarter to one, rendering the pre-packaged 1pm TV and radio news bulletins entirely moot, the mainstream analysis of Lee’s decision was unusually instant – and, refreshingly, unusually raw as a result. Political correspondents had no time to meditate and survey the lay of the land; they were sat in front of a camera and microphone with little time to call their contacts at the various HQs on either side of Mount Street and gauge the how and the why. Instead, they had to fly blind. In front of the microphones they went, scrambling their sentences together.

As a result, much of the analysis of George Lee’s departure ended up, whether deservedly or not, falling into two categories. Lee had either proven what the country had already suspected – that Enda Kenny is a leader built for recovery mode, but not to lead, and that Fine Gael under his stewardship will never make best use of its assets – or he had shown himself, as Charlie Bird had done less than a week previously, to be entirely unable of sustaining himself beyond the nestled and mollycoddling environment of RTÉ – and massively disenfranchising his constituents in the process.

There is certainly a lot to be said for each school of thought. Lee’s complaints – “that despite my best efforts I have had virtually no influence or input into shaping Fine Gael’s economic policies at this most critical time” – would carry weight from any TD, but when they come from a man head-hunted for his public profile and knowledge, that weight is multiplied many times over.

Here was a man with the werewithal to formulate genuine, credible economic alternatives to the government… and yet Fine Gael left him to wither on the backbenches, having made such a public act of his being taken on board.

On the other hand, Lee’s decision to resign his membership of Dáil Éireann as well as his membership of Fine Gael bears all the hallmarks of a man who got bored too early – and, what’s worse, didn’t feel up for a fight. Being frustrated (in both senses of the word) by the mass inertia of mainstream Irish politics is one thing, but vacating his parliamentary seat and deserting the 27,768 people who elected him to the Dáil, as well as his dream of reform, is quite another.

George Lee is an intelligent man, with an almost peerless knowledge of the localised economic world. Having been Economics Editor with RTÉ News for almost two decades, his place in the public hearts – having been there from bust to boom and back to bust again – was matched only by the revere held for his political and financial insight.

Thus, regardless of whether one believes Lee’s decision was a brave condemnation or a heartless hari-kiri, it follows that something in Irish parliamentary politics must be rotten. One of the Dáil’s worst failings is that far from carrying out the legislative function intended of any parliament, it has become just as much a playground for meaningless ranting on inane parochialisms as much as a legislative factory. While Lee has undoubtedly failed his constituents in abdicating his duties so shortly after being elected to fulfil them, he has also become a victim of the system. His constituents, curiously, will be the people most irritated by his resignation – but they’re also the ones who have no right to complain.

For too long now, Ireland has been a political black sheep, with a constitution that requires over-representation on a scale far exceeding that of other countries more comparable in size. TDs are intended to be legislators – but how many of them do so? Ireland’s parliamentarians have become custom-bred in a culture that treats them as glorified local councillors with no function to exert any real influence.

The departure of George Lee, therefore, isn’t just a sad day for Fine Gael or for the people of Dublin South. It’s a sad day for Ireland: if our political world cannot make the most of a man with his talent, then something is very lamentable indeed