Politics, politicians, and political activism

There was a fascinating interview on the Marian Finucane show on RTE radio yesterday, with Gino Kenny, the newly elected People before Profit TD. Mr. Kenny, an interesting and thoughtful man, was asked how he felt about being a politician. He was quite clear in his response, he was not a politician, he was a political activist, and in any event he would never be a ‘career politician’.

This made me think. I’m not, yet, an elected politician, although if my Seanad campaign succeeds, I hope to be. I usually describe myself as a doctor, an academic and an activist. Asked for more detail, I will say that I am both a political activist, as a Fine Gael supporter, and a trade union activist; and a social activist, as much of my research, and much of my work outside the academic world, is concerned with supporting people who are working to make their lives better.

Politicians are not especially trusted, although they may be more trusted than journalists, they are much less trusted than academics, or ‘people like me’. Perhaps this is what Deputy Kenny is getting at when he rejects the label of politician, but embraces that of political activist.

Why am I an activist? I grew up in a politically aware and active family, and I was educated by the Jesuits. In both settings, there was a strong emphasis on doing what you could for your community and for others. My mother, Nuala, was very active on our community council, and my late father, Michael, was active in Fine Gael, working with the late Mark Clinton in particular.

I went to school in a fee-paying school, Belvedere, which backed onto the Hardwicke St flats in the North inner-city. No-one in my school could fail to notice the poverty, and the lack of opportunity, for those who grew up around us. Many people from the school, and the wider Jesuit community, notably Fr. Peter McVerry, were, and are, very involved in community work.

I’m a doctor, and I chose a branch of my profession, public health, which is centrally concerned with issues like poverty, justice, housing, diet, exercise, disability, social inequality, environmental justice, and access to education and healthcare. For me, moving into electoral politics, is a very logical continuation of my own work.

Why am I not running as a Fine Gael candidate? I support quite a lot of what the outgoing Government did, in particular, the necessary, and brutal cuts in expenditure, while maintaining social welfare rates, and the tax rises and the pension levy. I think salary cuts to high earning public servants, like myself, could have, and should have, been deeper.

I opposed two of their policies strongly, both publicly and privately. The first was their failure to deal with the housing crisis. NAMA should have been required to build some social housing. Tenants should have been given a right of tenure, even if a property is sold. This should still be done.

The second was the rise in child poverty. I’m not stupid. I was well aware that large cuts in public spending would hurt poorer people, more than wealthier people. I did not, and do not, believe that Ireland had any choice. Having just read Kevin Cardiff’s book on the financial crisis I am more sure of that than before. However, I also believe that some more targeted measures, such as maintaining support for school assistants, breakfast clubs and the like, and some low-cost innovations, for example targeted support for childcare for those seeking to return to work, would have made a difference.

Why run as an Independent, and why not take a party whip? Simply, if I have the honour of being elected, in the TCD constituency, to the Seanad, I can be more effective as an independent. I can do a better job, both of representing Trinity, and of advocating for progressive change, outside a political party.

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