George Lee – why young, enthusiastic, hard workers cannot survive in Irish politics


After the initial Glee (sorry) of the George Lee resignation debacle died down, I felt myself unaccountably depressed by the whole affair.

Whatever about George’s personality, or Enda’s, or Fine Gael, or economic committees, the whole thing serves to remind us of one thing: there is no place for young, knowledgeable people who want to change things in Irish politics.

There is no place.

Several of my closest friends are involved in politics. Because most of them are still in their twenties, they are not completely disillusioned, yet.

But by the time any of them get anywhere that they could possibly make a major difference to public life in this country, they will, more than likely, be in their late thirties or forties, they will have families and other priorities, they will have been part of the system for so long that they will be tainted by it.

In some respects I can see it happening already; horse trading with jobs and sucking up to pointless constituency committees purely because they’re afraid they will lose the backing of this person or that person who is key to delivering a whole area or group.

None of them entered politics to be rich. They are bright people and could have got rich a lot faster in the private sector (perhaps not right now, but if they put as much work into any private sector job as they do into politics, they would certainly have achieved a lot). There is a certain amount of ego involved, as much as there is in any job involving public recognition.

George Lee could have got rich in the private sector. He trained as a stockbroker and took a massive salary drop to join RTE (as a lowly reporter to begin with, don’t forget). I heard him speak at a media conference a number of years ago and genuinely found him inspiring. He left a cushy job in a bank making pots of money to go into journalism, where, he thought, his plain speaking and ability to translate the jargon could help educate people. At the time he said the property bubble would be the biggest crime of the Fianna Fáil government. Cassandra-like, he had it spot on.

He left his, by then also cushy, job in RTE, to further that aim yet again; he wanted, not just to show people what was going wrong, but to help fix it. Very admirable. And few people with the ability to do this get that opportunity, so he was lucky.

But the system crushed him. Watching Frontline last night, the contribution of Elaine Byrne, a politics lecturer in TCD, was the one that said most; it was the system that failed here. It’s not about George’s personality, although he could have waited a little longer and tried to make a bit more noise. In any political system politicians are required to ‘play politics’; he should’ve stood up for himself. But ultimately he still would not have got what he wanted; to really contribute.

The system has failed many young, dynamic people who want to contribute to this country, to its people, and to making life better in a genuine way. Our politicians spend so much time, in good faith, sorting out medical cards and school places and jobseekers’ payments on an individual basis for thousands of people, that they have no time or inclination to create a macro system where politicians made policy and the social welfare system and justice system implemented it, without a word in its ear or a phone call from the right person.

The voters are partly to blame for this; clever people vote for the TD they know purely because they know him. Because he wrote back to the request for funding or to the complaint about the pothole or the medical card or whatever. And because he seems like a nice guy.

But I would rather have a socially inept, tactless, ugly person (which George Lee is not, by the way) who knows how to run an economy running my country than a smooth, glib, chatty hunk who knows f*** all about anything appearing at my funeral and doing precious little else.

And while the current system continues to operate the way it does, unfortunately I’m more likely to get a stunning media player than a statesman.

As for my friends – I really admire them for being in it for the long haul. I admire their dedication, the slog they put in, the constant ego massaging and power playing they are doing with the ultimate aim of getting somewhere that will let them make a difference. But I think, by the time they get there they will be so tired from the struggle that they will have forgotten why they were there in the first place.

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One comment

  1. Reall well balanced and insightful piece. I still think George Lee should have lasted a bit longer, for the people who voted him in and for others like me who viewed his election with hope and optimism giving us a glimpse towards a proper change in the political system.His resignation blows away that glimmer of hope with the "old boys" still very much in charge.Your words on the young people currently working their way up through the political "industry" – well it is up to us to give them a helping hand in what ever way we can.I would love to work with someone that I had confidence in that wanted to make a real difference. Maybe George didn't ask for help, maybe too proud. I don't know.Anyway well done. Really great blog xx

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