On election day, I joined the mass of people who turned out to put their stroke of a pencil on the ballot paper and turf our greedy, corrupt, incompetent, hopeless excuse for a government out of Leinster House. It wasn’t what you’d normally consider a revolution, but it got the job done, and got the tossers out.
Even as I made my mark, however, I was conscious of how negative and insulting we are about politicians in general. As the above passage suggests, I’ve been pretty eager to tar them all with the same brush. This is a bad habit for anyone to get into, but particularly for someone who writes for children.
For a start, it’s difficult to see why any young kid would take any interest at all in politics as it is. Let’s be blunt; if you were to form an opinion about the subject based on what you see in the news, you’d have to expect most kids to be bored cross-eyed with it. And who’d blame them?
And then we make it worse by showering abuse on anyone who gets into politics, as if taking an interest in helping run the country is reason enough to attract universal scorn and hatred. That’s a pretty major problem right there.
But for me, democracy doesn’t just mean holding an election every five years to decide which collection of perennial men and women in suits (mostly men) get to have a turn at running things. It means ordinary people taking part in the decision-making on every level – the decisions that affect our lives. It means sticking your oar in, demanding to know what’s going on, standing out on the street to shout when no one seems to be listening, and asking awkward questions of the people in power, and expecting proper answers.
It also means we get to have a peaceful revolution every four or five years. We get to topple the government by putting our pencil mark on a ballot paper – and then sitting and waiting while all those votes get counted. This is a process that’s not unlike watching paint dry (I know, Maedhbh and I took the kids to our local counting centre during the election). Watching votes being counted is as boring as hell, but if it means no one gets arrested, or imprisoned, or shot, or hit by a baton or a bomb blast, or gets tear-gassed or attacked by police dogs, marking that ballot paper is one of the most important things I’ll ever do.
There are people fighting and dying in places like Egypt and Libya for what we’ve got. And though some of our politicians are dishonest, or incompetent, corrupt or cowardly – or just plain boring – there are plenty who deserve our respect. It takes balls to stand up in front of tens of thousands of people and try and persuade them to vote for you, and then, when the media start pulling apart your life and every word you say, you have to stand there and take it.
My stepson knows more about politicians than I ever did at his age. He and his class held a mini-election before the main event, getting to choose from the parties’ leaders. It was a great idea, but I think we need much more of that stuff. I had to learn about the structure of democracy in history class – as if it happened years ago and now we don’t need to do any more about it. Education is better now, but not much better. With the country in the state it’s in, we have to make sure we don’t turn an entire generation of children into cynics before they can even vote. They’re still going to be cleaning up after this mess when they reach that age, so I think we should give them all the help we can, and start equipping them early with the knowledge and skills they’re going to need to run the country.
We can only hope they’ll make a better job of it than we have.