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Lisbon: Are civil servants running the show?

Catherine Reilly
4 August 2008

Catherine Reilly (Dublin, Metro Éireann): Who really runs 'democratic' countries, government officials or politicians? I have often wondered.

Last week, a long-time Irish politician raised that very question, in response to news reports in Ireland that there may be another referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

Speaking on the Newstalk radio station, Fianna Fail TD (parliamentarian) for Longford/Westmeath Mary O'Rourke said: "I'll tell you what I think.  I think the elite in foreign affairs have taken the lazy way forward, what I would call very lazy: 'Let's go again the way we did three or four years ago and let's go for another vote, the voters will accept it.' The voters will not accept it.  Nor should they be given the insult of being asked to accept it. That is lazy and foolish."

Asked if she was referring to the Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin, a party colleague, as being "lazy and foolish", she replied: "No I am not talking about Micheal Martin because I genuinely feel he knows enough about polls, he knows enough about going for elections, as does anybody who has been elected, so therefore I do not think that the thinking about this is coming directly from him. I think it is coming from what we call the mandarins, but I don't like to use the word…the high-ups in the civil service in Brussels and back in Ireland who say, 'Oh, listen, we're a bother to everyone, let's go again with another referendum."

Mandarins - it seems the word originated to describe high-ranking public officials in the Chinese Empire. Of course, Mandarin is also China's official national language. O'Rourke's reference to not liking to use the word was probably born from some momentary flash of horror that what she said could have been interpreted as racist.  There's prior history here, believe me.

In 2006, after being selected to run in the Longford/Westmeath constituency, she thanked her supporters, remarking: "They listened to my moaning and my groaning, and my upbeat and my downbeat as it went along, but they were there for me and they worked like blacks." Yes, you read correctly - worked like blacks.  And yes, there were so many other alternatives - worked 'their socks off', worked 'till they dropped', worked 'tirelessly'. But 'worked like blacks' worked for Mary O'Rourke. A media furore came and went, during which it was correctly pointed out that O'Rourke had done alot of advocacy work for her immigrant constituents. Ironically, O'Rourke is the aunt of Conor Lenihan, now Ireland's first ever Integration Minister, who had previously blotted his copybook by effectively referring to exploited Turkish workers as 'kebabs' during a parliamentary debate with a socialist politician, who had been supporting the Turkish men. I know it sounds bad. Let's just say O'Rourke is of a certain generation, and her nephew, despite being a very competent public speaker, occasionally tethers on the brink of political suicide. That said, he has proven himself a decent Integration Minister in his first year, although it will be the coming 12 months - complete with recessionary background - in which he will sink or swim.

But back to the point - Mary O'Rourke, as well as coming from an Irish political dynasty somewhat akin to those which laced the historical tapestry of her Chinese friends - knows the political 'game'. She was first elected to the Irish parliament in 1982, holding her seat for some 20 years before losing out in 2002 - but returning in 2007 -and has held a number of ministries during her career. I remember a journalism lecturer of mine, a former correspondent with a major daily, recalling O'Rourke's deep suspicion of these fizzy-orange drinking civil servants -after all, whose doors had they knocked on; who had elected them?

The Lisbon Treaty debacle is once again casting a spotlight onto the role of the civil service, specifically within the Foreign Affairs department and indeed within the structures of the EU. In the same radio interview, O'Rourke hinted that the civil service itself may have been key in the Irish Government's misreading of the public attitude towards Lisbon. 

Revealing that she had warned Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin that the Lisbon Treaty would not be passed, she remarked: "I was out every night for three weeks.  I saw no other party out in Athlone out canvassing, only our party.  I have talked to other TDs, colleagues of mine, and they say the same thing, that in large urban areas, we were the only party out actually talking to people and doorstepping.  After that I went back to Micheal Martin and I said to him 'this isn't going to be won you know, but we'll keep on'.  And he said 'Oh nonsense, nonsense'.  I said it's not going to be won."

Who was advising Minister Martin, one wonders. And who is he listening to now?

Catherine Reilly is deputy editor of Metro Eireann, Ireland's multicultural weekly 

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