Noel Whelan: Losing your Dáil seat is not the end of the world

A realisation that all is not lost may help the newly elected to focus on the general political good

The former Dún Laoghaire TD Barry Andrews,  who now leads the team at the development aid charity Goal.

The former Dún Laoghaire TD Barry Andrews, who now leads the team at the development aid charity Goal.

 

For many former deputies the real impact only kicks in several days after losing their seats.

The numerous counts that are a feature of our electoral system means election weekend itself can be long and exhausting for those who lose – but they spend them surrounded by friends and families and wrapped in the warmth and nostalgia of supporters.

It is usually a week or two later, when they have to clear out their desks in Leinster House or strip out a local constituency office, that the real impact hits.

In these more private moments, the rejection truly stings and for many their sense of purpose is undermined.

The account that the former Wicklow deputy Anne Ferris gave to Michael O’Regan in yesterday’s Irish Times is typical.

At this point, just shortly after the month’s mind, the sense of bereavement is clearly still acute.

Some 47 deputies lost their seats in the recent election, as distinct from those who retired pre-election.

Scanning the list of names one can spot of couple of barristers and doctors who will slip gradually back into a practice, a handful of teachers who will adjust back to the class room and some others who can now spend more time with their family businesses.

There are also a few who have reached normal retirement age. There are some who will temporarily work at something else pending re-entry to politics.

Politics is an addiction for which even defeat isn’t a cure. More than a dozen of those who lost in February have spent March and will spend most of April on gruelling countrywide campaigns seeking election to the Seanad on one of the vocational panels.

The aftermath of this election has thrown up a few anomalies. Former deputies are closely following the twists and turns of the ongoing government confirmation process before deciding whether to make themselves available for the next Dáil election depending on hosisoon that election is likely to be.

One of those who lost his seat, James O Reilly, is still a Cabinet Minister and a couple of them of them are still Ministers of State.

They are in the surreal position of theoretically having power in their department but having no real authority to exercise it.

The late political scientist and broadcaster Brian Farrell used to tell of how it was often a pleasure, in the car park of Leinster House or thereabouts, to come across a former deputy a year or two after he or she lost their seat.

Many only appreciated the treadmill they were on when they were thrown off it.

Most spoke of how their forced exit from politics meant they could get reacquainted with their spouses and their, by then, teenage children.

Missing politics

In a piece for a Fianna Fáil magazine in the mid-1990s, a few years after he had retired, the former tánaiste John Wilson described how he missed politics “the same way one missed a wall one might have been banging one’s head off of”.

Wilson went on in his retirement to have a busy life as chair of the Arts Council and with his work on the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains.

More recently, checking on some of those who lost their seats in 2011 one can see that many of them have discovered there is life beyond politics and indeed many find it more rewarding then their political years.

The stories of three former Fianna Fáil ministers of state illustrate the point.

Former Dún Laoghaire deputy Barry Andrews now leads the team at development aid charity Goal which is doing extraordinary work, not least in Syria, about which Andrews has been among the most impressive and informed voices calling for international action.

Former Limerick East deputy Peter Power, who is also a former minister of state for overseas development, is doing similar work as executive director of Unicef Ireland.

At a more local level, the former Wexford deputy and minister of state Seán Connick, who lost his Dáil seat in 2011, stepped down as a candidate for the 2014 local elections to apply for the position of chief executive of the John F Kennedy Trust in New Ross.

Sense of achievement

In that job now, Connick talks regularly of the sense of achievement that he gets daily in playing a hands-on role in the community and social development of the town.

Understandably, after years of austerity and high unemployment, most will have little sympathy for those who lose their jobs in elections, but it is worth reflecting on what the personal consequences are because the vagaries of political life shape the behaviour of many politicians.

A realisation that all is not lost if one loses a parliamentary seat may help the newly elected to risk focusing on the general political good and to be less spooked by the risk of losing their own seats.

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