Irish Times

May 6, 2002

A political vignette for our times

The defining vignette of this election may be the moment in Dundalk last week when Liam Ó Gogain was disqualified as a candidate because, in the box on the nomination paper headed Description of Occupation, he described himself as a father, writes John Waters

John Waters
Irish Times

Mr Ó Gogain is known as an activist for fathers' rights, being the founder and chairman of Parental Equality, an organisation which has campaigned on this issue for the past decade. The father of two teenage boys, he presented himself last Friday with his nomination paper, signed by 30 constituents, and other appropriate documents, to the Returning Officer and County Registrar of Louth. He had filled in the relevant section in a manner which he believed accurately summarised his occupation as "father and college lecturer."

The Returning Officer made her ruling under section 52.(D)of the Electoral Act 1992, asserting that the term "father " was a " political and/or emotive reference."

This electoral absurdity is not, as far as I can ascertain, gender-specific, since it is to be assumed that the term " mother " is just as unacceptable. Among the approved formulations for female candidates are "housewife" and "homemaker". Mr Ó Gogain is a part-time father, who cares for his sons 50 per cent of the time.

He sought to obtain from the County Registrar a clarification as to what description of this dimension of his occupation might be acceptable. Since he is a separated man, he volunteered that to describe himself as a "house-husband" might be misleading. The registrar agreed, but rejected also the terms "ex-househusband" and "house ex-husband."

Some other descriptions deemed unsuitable were: "single parent"; " single father" ; "separated father"; and "separated parent". It is clear that there is a degree of discretion, subjectivity and/or inconsistency on this issue, as Mr Ray Kelly, running on a similar platform in Dublin West, has been allowed to describe himself as a single parent, and Mr Vincent Killilea in Roscommon-Leitrim will be described on the ballot paper as a house-husband, even though his marital status is similar to Mr Ó Gogain's.

Mr Ó Gogain has, predictably and correctly, drawn attention to the aspects of this which suggest discrimination against men who devote themselves to their children. He has emphasised also the denial of his constitutional right to present himself to the electorate of Louth. He maintains that describing himself as a father represented an essential element of full disclosure with regard to the nature of his availability to the voters of Louth, since his commitments as both a father and college lecturer will set limits on his availability to constituents in the event that he is elected.

BUT there are meanings to this which transcend the particularities of the episode. The notion that the word "father" contains an inappropriate "political and/or emotive reference" in the context of an election raises fascinating questions concerning the nature of politics. It seems bizarre that any "political reference" might be deemed inimical to the spirit of an election.

The "emotive" element is even more interesting. One possible interpretation is that, in her capacity as County Registrar, the Returning Officer was aware that Mr Ó Gogain had been involved in family law proceedings in respect of his children, and felt that the use of the term "father" to in part describe his occupation might sway in some improper fashion voters who would make this connection. But since any involvement by Mr Ó Gogain in family proceedings would be governed by the in camera rule, any knowledge of this by any person not directly involved is not open for consideration on any grounds whatever save in the privacy of the courtroom.

In other words, the County Registrar, who might in one sense be aware that Mr Ó Gogain had been involved in family law proceedings, would in another be obliged to "forget" that this was the case, and certainly not be expected to draw upon such information in any other context. We can assume, therefore, that the "emotive" classification must relate to something else, and the only remaining possibility concerns the general significance of the word "father" .

Clearly, then, it is the law of the land that the most intimate and crucial function of a male human being in his family and society is not appropriate or relevant to the conduct of politics.

This vignette suggests that politics has been cut adrift from the true nature of human society, but we sensed that already. It tells us also that the State to which we pledge allegiance, and which purports to serve and protect us and our children, regards the function of parenting as too emotive and political to have a political expression, that the only aspects of life which that State is prepared to recognise in full are those manifesting themselves in the public, economic and fiscal dimensions. It tells us that all the talk by politicians and public servants about the rearing of children being the most sacred and important function of human life and society is mere humbug, and that all this State requires from its citizens is that they make themselves available to screw nuts on Volvos or stand on their hind legs in the Oireachtas to discuss the Gross National Product.

It tells us that politics is truly, deeply apolitical in the fullest sense of that word. For here we have the ultimate absurdity: the safest way to avoid being deemed too political for politics by virtue of one's occupation is to describe oneself as a politician.

© 2001