Waterville, Co Kerry
You always know when an election is in prospect in Ireland. You see it the moment you leave the Rosslare ferry terminal. Large, really large, poster-size photographs of grinning candidates attached to what seems like every available lamppost or telephone pole. It gives a new dimension to the meaning of roadside clutter.
This month, it’s a double dose: elections to the European Parliament and to Ireland’s county councils. It’s far from clear, at least to the outsider, which candidate is standing for which election. By driving from Wexford to Co Kerry via Limerick City – to take a random but real journey – the keen observer can deduce who the European candidates are because their faces recur and recur and recur. Just when you think you are safe from the enthusiastic youth who resembles a wannabe TV presenter, he pops up again at a remote crossroads in Kerry.
Party labels are visible but not prominent. The candidate’s face and name are everything. There must be a PR firm that teaches election candidates how to try to look earnest, honest, responsible, caring and cheerful in a single facial expression. I’d ask for my money back. One or two of them bring it off, but most don’t. As we drove past a smiling avuncular-looking figure my (Irish) wife said she wouldn’t trust him an inch. My favourite is the candidate whose expression looks as if her idea of a good time would be pulling the limbs off small animals, or worse.
Poster sites are myriad. Heavily used sections of road, both in town and country, find posters from different candidates competing for the best positions. Barely used country tracks are not exempt, since there may be a farmer or two living there. My award for the worst-taste location goes to a Kerry County Council candidate who placed a giant sized poster of herself at the top of Ballaghisheen Pass in the Dunkerron Mountains, right at the viewing point for a stunning rugged landscape and visible for miles. Since most of those pausing, or even passing, are likely to be foreign tourists it seems a waste of money and an unnecessary eyesore in the natural environment.
It may be advancing years, but despite five days’ incessant exposure to the candidates’ posters, I can’t remember a single name. Ireland, like the UK, has what passes for a “mature” democracy, and almost all electors will vote on party lines. So why the focus on what individual candidates look like?
One reason may be that candidates’ photos now appear on ballot papers alongside their names. This measure was introduced in 1999, partly to assist voters with reading and literacy difficulties but also to address the problem – held to be peculiar to Ireland – of distinguishing between candidates with similar or identical surnames. Subsequent research(1) produced evidence to suggest that some voters were influenced by candidates’ photographs rather than by their political affiliation.
This is a bit worrying. Tuesday’s The Irish Times carried a photograph(2) which illustrates how judgement by appearance can mislead. I have no views at all on the competence of either the Irish or Finnish finance ministers, but if I were being asked who looks the more trustworthy it’s a no-brainer.
More seriously, the Irish system seems to me to reinforce the gulf between politicians and the rest of us. Politicians are allowed extensive high profile publicity in spaces that would be denied to anyone else. Are we meant to gaze on them and admire a new form of celebrity? Why should they disfigure landscapes and townscapes with official sanction?
Of course we should respect the Irish people’s right to determine their electoral system. And there are many things about Ireland that Britain can and should admire. But the proliferation of photographic election posters is not one of them. However much I might respect my home city and county councillors, I don’t want to see the streets plastered with their mugshots at election time.
(1) Buckley, F., Collins, N., Reidy, T., 2007. Ballot paper photographs and low-information elections in Ireland. Available in an open access version at https://cora.ucc.ie/bitstream/handle/10468/31/FB_BallotAV2007.pdf?sequence=3 (accessed 7 May 2014).