Who'd be a young politician?
Relationships are difficult, ageism is rife and, if you're a young single woman, 'everyone is looking at you'. Three younger politicians talk about their first two years representing us.If the past couple of years have been “like suffering an endless series of whiplash injuries”, in the words of one veteran TD, what were they like for the new arrivals to national politics, full of energy and enthusiasm, almost two years ago? The major challenge for some was to adjust to the public’s perception of them, a steep descent from election euphoria to relentless abuse.
John Lyons, the 35-year-old soft-spoken teacher turned Labour TD from Ballymun, in Dublin, has found the pressure almost unbearable at times.
“It’s very difficult to go out in your own community now and actually be seen as a human being. I’m very shocked by that. Normally, the first part of what we do when we meet as human beings is to say, ‘Jeez, how are you? Good to see you.’ But the first thing people do now when they meet me is take me by the elbow, skip the niceties and say, ‘Wait till I tell you . . .’ ”
There were “a few moments”, he says, “that were too tough, when you went home and thought, This isn’t worth it.”
The first was a public meeting. “I was new in the job and not used to exertion of pressure from people. The meeting wasn’t conducted in a fair way, and I felt I was on my own, because I was trying to be balanced and fair and to say the truth – which was that the issue was very complex. But I was torn to shreds.
“Sometimes in this life people don’t want to hear the truth. People are entitled to say what they want, but that’s providing they’ve thought about what they want to say and are rational about it. My job requires that of me before I make a judgment call, and I expect the same from anybody else.”
Lyons understands why people are angry. “I think it’s partly about the particular expectations and demands on TDs in areas such as Finglas and Ballymun, which have a high level of disadvantage and difficulties that maybe other TDs don’t have to deal with in the acute way that we have to. There are a lot of social-welfare issues, like housing. That’s such a huge, huge, complex issue.”
But most of the new TDs, no matter what party, “genuinely ran for a cause”, John Lyons says. “The country was in a position where there was about six months of funding and you thought that by chipping away, that at some time in the future, you’d be able to look back and say the picture looks much better . . . But you don’t really understand how tough it is until you’re walking the walk.”
Was Lyons in tears, as reported, at the parliamentary-party meeting where Colm Keaveney, Labour’s chairman, jumped ship? He was, he says, while wanting to be clear that it was not “directly related” to Keaveney. “I was just very overwhelmed by the exceptional passion, the humanity oozing from people in that room. Those two days were the dawning of a new experience for me.
“I became a bit emotional when I was making the point that less than two years ago I’d been sitting on a bench in the RDS, the happiest man in Ireland, and now how tough these days were, but how people had come together, so passionate about the future of Ireland, so determined to get it right. They were saying, ‘If I lose my seat so be it, because this is the right thing to do.’ If I turn out to be a one-term politician, I’ll accept that.”
Simon Harris of Fine Gael, a pragmatist in a hurry, also speaks of upsetting periods. “The reality [of being a TD] is frustrating. There were a few small elements in the budget that upset me, and I had suggested alternatives on how you can make savings and I couldn’t get them through; you’re told the Government couldn’t do a U-turn. But in other countries they send draft budgets to committee. The system needs to open to the idea.
“Say, we know we are legally bound to introduce property tax or we have only a certain amount to spend on carers, so why not ask Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin, ‘What do you think is the best way of spending the money we have?’ We are human beings. But you can’t just walk off the pitch.
“Yes, I could be a hero for a day,” says Harris, “but if you’re in government and you lose the whip, you don’t get speaking slots, you don’t get weekly parliamentary-party meetings with Enda Kenny. My job is to hold the Government to account too. What’s the point of being on the backbenches for years?
“I was around when George Lee was here, and if George had held out he’d be here helping to solve the problems. What did he achieve by walking away? You can’t be arrogant enough to take a stand for your own ego and vanity. That’s not making a difference.”
Harris looks enviously across at the House of Commons, where MPs can vote against their own government and stay in the fold. Harris is itching for reform. He also wants more power and independence for the committees. He wants a more representative Dáil.
“What it is now is men, generally, men of a certain age, from a limited number of professional backgrounds and often a relative of a TD. That’s a real danger: that you come into this bubble and develop this herd mentality. It can be so dangerous.
“You become fond of and so friendly with people, but you’ve got to stay true to yourself and give yourself projects.”
Although Harris speaks with the confidence of a successful, long-time lobbyist and insider, for John Lyons it is harder to shake off. The overwhelmingly negative perception of politicians troubles him.
Lyons acknowledges that people judge the Dáil “by the pantomime of politics” indulged in by some backbenchers, but he also believes the media is selective in its reporting and fails to properly acknowledge successes – such as when a group of backbenchers managed to reverse the cuts to teachers in disadvantaged schools last year.
“I’ve had this out with a few journalists, but you’re almost afraid that maybe you’ll be the one who’ll be picked on the next day. Politicians have a lot to answer for in creating this image, of course, but there are 70-odd new politicians here, and we’re all being tarnished with the one brush.
“Anecdotally, during the last Dáil, the bar was busy and pints were drunk. Now the bar is essentially a coffee shop – but who knows that?”
The Sinn Féin senator Kathryn Reilly, the youngest member of the current Oireachtas, arrived in the Seanad with a thorough grasp of the system and looking for a reason to retain the upper house. She has yet to find it.
“I believe in the bicameral system, but in its current form I think it should be abolished. It’s just a replication of the Dáil,” she says.
“If you look at the records of the first day, everyone was saying we have to be the reforming Seanad. We’ve had a few good things happen, yes, but it’s not the reforming Seanad that everyone spoke of.”
Steeped in politics, both in practice and academically, she symbolises part of the problem, ironically, and she knows it.
“A lot in here are failed general-election candidates or people winding down. I’m not going to lie: I lost out in the general election, and, for someone like me, the Seanad is a great way of dipping a toe in the water. You don’t have the overwhelming burden of constituency work, but it’s a great facility to get your profile up, if you want to get elected next time. But in terms of what it does, I would be a bit disillusioned.
“One of the issues I would be very vocal on is youth unemployment, and I’ve asked for a debate on that at least 10 times. Instead we spent two hours talking about ash die-back one day, and an hour was dedicated to the 90th anniversary of the Seanad on another. If you’re having problems supporting your family and looking in on that, you’re surely thinking, What are they doing – are we actually paying for that?”
John Lyons refers to the “horrendous things” people say on Facebook, which have so consumed discourse about politics since the tragic death of the junior minister Shane McEntee before Christmas.
“A common thread would have been, ‘Yiz are a pack of liars’. . . ‘You have no shame.’ It mightn’t sound that bad, but when they’re coming at you from all directions there’s no escape.
“I don’t carry Facebook or Twitter on my phone, because I don’t need to be looking at that when I’m trying to do things. And the temptation would always be there to click on the app for Facebook before bed, and you’d see so many things that would turn your stomach from a lot of people who’ve never met me.”
Lyons describes this as adult cyberbullying. “You can get into an engagement with someone who has a predisposed opinion and who doesn’t even want to talk. There are adults out there who are definitely involved in nothing less than that, and some of them have young children – and are those children seeing the kind of thing they’re doing?”
“Shane’s death was very tragic and a shock,” says Lyons. “When I heard his brother speak very angrily about the cowards who had sent him horrible messages I knew exactly what he meant, and I think many parliamentarians could relate to it. Since then, like some of my colleagues, I have thought about closing down my Facebook page.”
The abuse ritually piled on public representatives seems to have escaped Simon Harris. “You do get a bit of grief. You are their public property, but there’s still a bit of ‘the local boy gone good’ towards me in my town of Greystones.
“Online, most of it is orchestrated. I have these protests outside my office – but then you can read online that the other political group is planning a demo that’s meant to reflect the public ‘anger’ and there they are outside your door.”
The irritants for Harris exist mostly inside the “bubble”.
“What I find amazing is the kind of lines you hear from the opposition benches, such as ‘I’m here representing ordinary working people.’ Well, who or what am I representing? The extraordinary, nonworking people?”
Harris also refers to the veteran politicians patronising the younger ones. “It’s ageism. In here, you do get an ‘ah, bless him’ attitude. It’s not intentionally nasty; it’s cultural. People don’t do it consciously. But there is an attitude of, ‘ah, young lads need to learn to hold their nerve.’
“I know I have loads to learn, but learning is different to morphing into what came before me. I ran against experienced politicians – but what was their experience? Bringing the country to ruin?”
As the youngest member of the current Oireachtas, Senator Kathryn Reilly was bound to attract special attention. But not necessarily of the most productive kind.
“You’re always going to be under scrutiny as a public representative, but as a young, single woman, everyone is looking at you, and I find that very hard. In a nightclub people will recognise you as the senator – ‘and there she is, drinking – and dancing’.
“If that was a male representative, they could be kissing the face off someone and no one would be saying, ‘Who’s your man?’ I look forward a few years and wonder how am I to get the kids and the man? In here? Slim pickings.”
Reilly also believes women and men have a different approach to politics. “I don’t believe in heckling or fighting. I would find that women in the Oireachtas are not hecklers but tend to get heckled a lot more”.
Reilly refers to an analysis of speeches by her party colleague Mary Lou McDonald, which showed at least 60 interruptions.
John Lyons has paid a high personal price for his two years in the job he loves. A few weeks before this interview, his two-and-a-half-year relationship broke up. “There was a number of things, but the all-consuming nature of this job always niggled at it. [My partner] worked shifts, so I’d be coming in and he’d be going to work.
“You have to ask yourself, what is the other person thinking when, after a day in Leinster House, you’re then driving to a function in the constituency when they’re at home not getting a chance to talk to you?”
Harris has managed to sustain his relationship (with a paediatric nurse). “You have to make time for it. You can’t only go home when your in-tray is empty.”