TDs face many challenges in world of ‘new politics’ as summer break ends

Rank-and-file must measure up to dual role of legislator and constituency representative

Willie Penrose: ‘I don’t bother with Twitter, Facebook or any of that nonsense.’ File photograph: Cyril Byrne /The Irish Times

Willie Penrose: ‘I don’t bother with Twitter, Facebook or any of that nonsense.’ File photograph: Cyril Byrne /The Irish Times

 

Much has changed for our TDs when compared to their predecessors of years ago.

Voters are now more demanding, cynical and are ruthless in consigning TDs into premature retirement at election time. Events in Leinster House are viewed with a decidedly jaundiced eye.

The days of the so-called safe seat, when a “quota squatter’’ could rely on a traditional party vote and a long Dáil run with a sizeable pension at the end, are no more.

The lot of the rank-and-file TD, whether on the Government backbenches or in Opposition, is not always a happy one.

Ministers enjoy the perks of office and the political influence it brings. TDs frequently have to be content with the political crumbs passed on from the ministerial table as they lobby on behalf of their constituents.

The 157 TDs returning to Leinster House after the summer recess know they have to measure up in the dual role of legislator and constituency representative.

Housing and health issues currently dominate the problems raised with them by the public.

They are returning to a Dáil of “new politics”, knowing the arrangement keeping a minority Government in power could collapse at any time if events run out of control.

So why do TDs do it and why is there a long queue of councillors and others anxious to take their place?

Cork East Labour TD Sean Sherlock. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Cork East Labour TD Sean Sherlock. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

“As professions go, politics requires a certain breed of person with a thick skin,’’ says Cork East Labour TD Sean Sherlock. “It is addictive.’’

He says the mystique surrounding politics and politicians in Ireland is long gone and there is no longer any subservience shown to the local chief by party footsoldiers.

TDs, cross-party and on the Independent benches, all defend constituency work, despite its frequent dismissal by some critics as mere clientilism.

“I would be unapologetic in emphasising its value,’’ says Sherlock. “Politicians need that local connection with people to keep them grounded.’’

‘Overcoming bureaucracy’

Fianna Fáil Cavan-Monaghan TD Niamh Smyth, who runs four offices in her sprawling constituency, says TDs help constituents to overcome bureaucracy in securing their rights.

Fianna Fáil Cavan-Monaghan TD Niamh Smyth. File photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
Fianna Fáil Cavan-Monaghan TD Niamh Smyth. File photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

“The so-called clientilism would not be necessary if people felt that they themselves could secure what they are entitled to,’’ says Smyth. “This is not always the case.’’

She says it is particularly true when it comes to health issues, with constituents frequently looking for a sympathetic ear and an ally in their corner.

“I recently had a case of a young woman with cancer who lost the allowance for a wig,’’ she added. “She was traumatised when she came to see me.’’

The traditional clinic, whereby TDs meet constituents in different locations, usually a pub or community hall, are on the wane because of the advent of email and mobile phones.

That said, all TDs agree visibility in the constituency remains hugely important and the public expect to meet their local representative at regular intervals.

Many TDs make appointments to meet individual constituents and also keep in touch by way of the occasional newsletter and the all-important door-to-door calls.

One who prefers the traditional methods of dealing with constituents is Longford-Westmeath Labour TD Willie Penrose who says his only concession to social media, so widely used by his colleagues, is receiving and replying to text message on his mobile phone.

Keeping it traditional

“I don’t bother with Twitter, Facebook or any of that nonsense,’’ he says. “I keep in touch with my constituents by way of the old-fashioned letter in a stamped, addressed envelope.’’

Penrose says those constituents who contact him by email are replied to by his secretary or family members after he has read a print-out and dictated a reply.

“I have a principled objection to all of this technology because it is eliminating jobs,’’ he adds.

“The postman and woman, as we know them, will be gone in a few years because of a lack of work, and there will be the usual crocodile tears in the Dáil.’’

While TDs remain happy to accept praise for delivering constituency goodies, all agree that some of the political stunts of the past would be met with derision by modern voters.

TDs recall their predecessors telling them of rushing to constituents with the news they had secured a local authority house, having seen the list in the council office.

Rural TDs say attendance at funerals is still important in retaining a community connection, but none is prepared to emulate the TD, now deceased, who in the 1980s was legendary for his intake of holy communion on a busy funeral day.

He was frequently observed receiving communion at up to three or four funerals on the same day, breaking a fundamental tenet of the Catholic Church, whose views on divorce, contraception and gay rights he trumpeted at the time.

He became known to his colleagues as the “hourly communicant’’.