What happens when politicians quit?
Despite the near-impossibility under Irish law of removing an elected official
from local or national office, circumstances can change for them like any other person and from time to time, an elected official vacates their office. Personal reasons, health reasons, scandal (when the fallout is sufficient or a fall guy is unavailable), or indeed death can leave public seats empty. So what happens then? As it happens, it depends on the level of government in which they serve, and is wildly inconsistent in different houses.
At Presidential level, we tend to move directly to an election. As no less than three of our nine presidents have left office during their term: Mary Robinson, to pursue a career at the UN; Cearbhail O Dalaigh, who resigned over the conflict with the Cosgrave cabinet; and Erskine Childers, who died in office, , we are well versed in rearranging presidential elections. Simple enough really, and it’s the way we fill empty TD seats as well. For the national legislature, it’s a simple case of holding a by-election “as soon as possible”, which is of course PR speak for “when the party in power think they have the best chance of taking the seat, and not a minute sooner if there’s a threat on the horizon”. Taking aside the machinations of conservative governments and their occasional tendency not to blow the whistle until their team is winning, the structure is nonetheless in place – the incumbent is gone, we reschedule the election. Simple.
Local and European level
But what of the other two levels? At European level, because of our commitments to the larger European community, we don’t hold by-elections. Rather, each candidate names a “second”, whose purpose is to take over the role in the event of the candidate’s incapacity to fulfil their duties. These seconds are publicly known prior to election, meaning we as voters know not only what we’re buying but what the consolation prize is when we cast our ballots.
Local government however works an entirely different way. While the occasional extra TD election doesn’t break the national bank, and necessity forces presidential elections to be rescheduled from time to time, at local level there are simply too many representatives (and therefore, too many illnesses, retirements, scandals and deaths) to hold an election every time a seat become vacant. So what do we do instead? Well, logic would dictate that we should perhaps consider the next person down in the results of the last election, but we don’t do that. We instead see councillors co-opted onto local authorities. Co-option is, exactly as it sounds, spin speak for appointment. So who co-opts these replacements? Well, that’s the former party of the former councillor. Yes, you read that correctly, the replacement for an absent councillor is appointed entirely by the party of that councillor. No public consultation, simply a merit badge for a good party soldier locally.
Large Party control
What then if the councillor has already left – or been expelled from – their party by the time they resign their seat? That apparently doesn’t matter. If , say, a councillor was elected as a Fine Gael candidate and then leaves the party by whatever means, and then resigns their seat, Fine Gael can simply appoint a replacement. This seems grossly inappropriate for several reasons. At more than any other level, local politics is more about the individual candidate than the party, Irish voters will frequently have no love or loyalty to the party of their preferred local candidate, tending to vote geographically at an incredibly localised level. How happy would a voter feel , having chosen a candidate from their back garden because of their understanding of the local concerns rather than their party colours, being told that they’ve been replaced by a complete stranger from the other side of the constituency? What if that other end of the constituency still has their local councillor in situ?
This system – like the lack of directly elected mayors, making the mayoralty of our towns and cities little more than a trophy to be passed back and forth between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – is designed to exert maximal big party control of local government with minimal interference from voters or smaller parties. Local government while not far-reaching in its powers is absolutely crucial to our democracy. Each vote can have a more direct impact, each policy a more tangible and visible result, each councillor the most accessible representative any of us has. Local government should be the most democratic of all levels, and yet we find ourselves unable to select mayors and unable to ensure that we have a say in who represents us if our first choice loses their seat.
For this reason, armed with the knowledge that our candidates can be replaced without our say-so with anyone their party sees fit, it is crucial that we all realise next year that when the time comes to vote for the local pothole filler, we must remember that we are electing a party as well as a person. Make no mistake, the nice man from down the road that just happens to be with a big party, sure you know his father and your cousin plays hurling with his son, that guy? He fixed the road, you know him you do. The vote you cast for him arms big parties to continue a rotten status quo.
Jimi is the editor of Soapbox.ie. You can contact him here.