International and Ireland: Lessons from Irish Politics

In my childhood, I aspired to be a public servant. A politician, maybe. I wanted to serve my communities and to get involved in American politics right after college. Yet as I read political research, listened to talking points, and followed events around the world, something changed.

I began to believe that there are countless ways of looking at and organizing our attempt to solve our political challenges. That we have a lot to learn from other perspectives and we are often blind to them. This approach is not relativistic. Instead, absolute truths require a high bar. More importantly, we must always contemplate and challenge them.

This process brought me to study how communities — governments and citizens — interact and change through international affairs. I have spent much of my career working globally to improve governance systems and the policy that flows from them. One of the reasons I came to Ireland was to learn from the country’s international relations and from their local and national politics. These are lessons I can share with my own communities and others I encounter along the way.

The conversations started with taxi drivers who had strong opinions about Donald Trump. I talked with my Trinity classmates about the European experience. I attended Dublin City Council meetings, shadowed in Ireland’s parliament, and spoke with diplomats. Ireland might have some lessons for how political systems affect communities and how we can shape them for good.

Ireland believes in engaging beyond its borders. While most foreigners I have met fear Brexit, they are optimistic, albeit cautiously, about the European project. At a campus event, even the leader of one of Ireland’s nationalist parties, Sinn Fien, asserted that the EU has done some good despite needing reform. This common struggle through differences is refreshing.

At the same time, I have found the Irish are still deeply committed to their own communities. I have watched the Dublin City Council take up issues ranging from a housing crisis to city infrastructure. As they function on national funding, their connection to national politics seems more noticeable than in U.S. politics. Of course, this approach is more manageable in a country of roughly 4.7 million, but it seems all levels of government are important and somewhat valued.

Like many parliamentary political systems, Ireland’s national executive roles are filled by elected officials, which theoretically increases democratic accountability. The government is also susceptible to a new election at almost any time, reinforcing representatives’ motivation to engage communities regularly. Ireland’s rank-choice voting system might also hold lessons. Voters can rank electoral candidates, limiting concerns they will lose their vote by casting ballots for a preferred choice that is less likely to win. In America, Maine has recently explored this system.

Many Irish I have met are politically engaged and somewhat open-minded. One public servant proposed that Ireland is less polarized because everyone is more connected. Perhaps seeing people as more than group stereotypes and numbers might help us work together. Undoubtedly, I might be wrong. Of course, Ireland’s hyper-democratic project is not perfect. For example, some Irish citizens are skeptical that people are educated enough to vote in referendums and worry a “centered” politics will not always suffice.

These are realities all democracies must face. And they warrant a firm commitment to the principles of dialogue and learning that my experience with international affairs first taught me. Ireland will continue to teach me. I still want to be a public servant, but I will always have a lot to learn.

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