It is very true, and very sad, to say that attending the funerals of deceased constituents in order to gain the votes of their grieving relatives is considered a vital part of a politician’s job in Ireland. In fact, given that the Dail only sits three days a week, with long holidays during the year (the number of days on which the Dail sat rose to more than 100 out of 365 for the first time in a decade in 2009), dealing with funerals, potholes and other local issues will normally take more of a TDs time than national issues.
It has always struck many in our society, including myself, that attending funerals in order to gain votes is a particularly craven aspect of the excessive focus on the ‘parish pump’ which blights our politics. The idea of turning up to a funeral uninvited and without knowing the deceased, making sure that every single mourner notes one’s presence, by sitting near the back so that everyone must pass, and going up to Communion last so that you are seen by the whole congregation when walking back, in order to secure a place as a family’s ‘minder’, who they turn to to negotiate the use of any public services, must be one of the most cynical political tactics in the world.
Were this an unknown practice in Ireland, and an author described it in a book, it would be considered a laughable scenario constructed for its shock value.
And yet, it works. If people were shocked and horrified by politicians soliciting their votes at a funeral, and responded negatively to their attempts at ingratiation, this practice would long since have ceased, instead, politicians who do not engage in this practice, most particularly in rural areas, normally lose out to those who do, and a process of selection occurs whereby those politicians who spent a greater amount of time on local issues tend to have safer seats then those who spend less; of only two Progressive Democrat TDs to survive the last election, one of them survived solely on the basis of his impressive constituency work: Noel Grealish. This leads to the truly bizarre aspect of Irish politics: a politician must calculate the local work he has to do to succeed in re-election, add a generous safety margin, and then, if there is any time left over, try and turn his attention to national issues. In fact, in many rural constituencies, a politician who does not utilise funerals as public appearances will often be criticised as being aloof, and unconcerned.
This is a point that many commentators who criticise this disturbing practice fail to grasp: funerals are not enjoyable affairs which politicians attend because they wish to study the artwork and bob along to the dirges; funerals are sad, depressing events which they attend because they are given no option. If they fail to attend, a competitor will, and they will soon be ousted, given only the epitaph that “He didn’t do much for the area, and he was never around”. The blame for the continuance of this practice rests solely with the populace who demands it, and punishes those politicians who refuse to continue it.
So long as politicians gain electoral support from this scavenging this shameful practice will continue.