Last Sunday, in the middle of a glorious bank holiday weekend, Cathal Crowe posted a six-part statement on Twitter. The 40-year-old Co Clare TD said he was addressing a “very small handful of people” who had contacted him that evening demanding details of a trip away. They suspected, apparently, that he was planning to disguise a stag weekend as a work trip in order to claim Dáil expenses; one was “even saying he’ll submit a Freedom of Information request”.
To save them the bother he disclosed the price of his Ryanair ticket – €165 – and his sleeping arrangements: a bunk bed in a hostel. He had done some work by all accounts, replied to “many emails” throughout the weekend and had given a newspaper interview – but “Dáil Éireann did NOT pay for me to go on a stag party”, he stressed. “I work damn hard each day of the year but I am human and I am sociable...”
His posts caught the eye mainly because the bait seemed well short of the vile, edging-on-defamatory abuse routinely directed at politicians. Yet the young TD had been stung into spending a chunk of that beautiful evening reminding people that he was a human being.
Was it an acute case of over-reaction? Think how a named civil servant or a schoolteacher or a judge, say, would react to the merest public hint that they intended to commit a fraud on the public purse. Not well, is the likely answer. Crowe by contrast could be accused of over-reacting only because politicians are expected to suck it up.
It’s a rough bargain to make for a job that usually begins with a desire to serve the community at some level, entails a mountain of unpaid work, existential insecurity and a monumental tolerance of casual abuse that would be unbearable for most normal people, followed by multiple personal sacrifices, especially for those who enter politics in their 20s and 30s.
Many politicians describe politics as an addiction, so it could be argued that it takes more grit to quit than to stay
An astute old friend of Enda Kenny once observed, privately as part of background research for an article, that for the latter group, something is inevitably lost along the way. “You kind of lose your youth to a certain degree. You were going full-time to meetings of some kind at night and weekends, and it was always an older generation that was there, not the ones you grew up with.”
The only positive thing to be said of the housing crisis is that it may be radicalising younger generations enough to transform that woeful picture. Party activism is a weighty commitment and any notion that the party system can be bypassed because it fails to inspire or energise young people is a denial of reality. There will be tedious evening and weekend meetings, fundraising, canvassing, weekend criss-crossing of huge rural constituencies, the casual calumny, contempt and barracking, and after all that, the inevitable political compromises.
The fact that an unusual number of youngish TDs are choosing not to contest the next election – “leaving on their own terms” – makes for an interesting discussion, but is hardly surprising. These days, 50 is young enough for a second chapter; most fathers want to see their children during the week and full-time homemakers (okay, women) are not so freely available to take up the slack at home, nor so amenable to absent partners.
What all this means depends on your perspective: that some decent, mid-career politicians are being driven out by political disillusionment, constant availability, intrusiveness and abuse or alternatively, that a bunch of tired old party hacks are jumping before they’re pushed.
A long political career isn’t as long as it seems. The average stay of a TD in Leinster House is under 14 years, according to Independent TD Denis Naughten, one of those heading for the exit. Though Naughten only turns 50 in a few weeks, he will still be in the top 10 per cent of TDs with long service.
Jim Daly, minister of state for mental health in the last government, was still in his 40s when he opted out in 2020, frustrated by what he couldn’t do as a minister
At 54, the putative next taoiseach, Mary Lou McDonald, will be older than any of Fine Gael’s top tier. Two of the leavers, Brendan Griffin and John Paul Phelan, are still in their 40s. A third, Joe McHugh (whose wife Olwyn Enright stepped away from the Dáil in her mid-30s) is 51.
The question could be turned around: why are so many not leaving?
Many politicians describe politics as an addiction, so it could be argued that it takes more grit to quit than to stay. But unlike most occupations, the question of whether it is worth the downside is not just about the individual, but the whole family. Is it worth the in-your-face threats and protests on the doorstep?
Jim Daly, minister of state for mental health in the last government, was still in his 40s when he opted out in 2020, frustrated by what he couldn’t do as a minister and the fact that he had made it to just three Christmas school plays for his five children after 16 years in the Dáil. He is now into his second chapter as CEO of the Private Hospitals Association.
The much reviled and harassed former minister for housing, Eoghan Murphy – who had just turned 39 when he resigned his seat in 2021 – revealed that an ex-girlfriend among others had been subjected to “horrendous” abuse. But he posed the right question: “You ask yourself, is it right to stay as a TD, taking a very generous salary from the public purse, if you’re not 100 per cent committed to it?”
If you don’t know what you’re there for anymore, why stay?