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Politics attracts some idiots and narcissists - but most are still driven by a desire to do good

To step forward and declare you want to serve in spite of all the abuse requires brave, old-fashioned character

When a Vietnamese property tycoon was sentenced to death last week for one of the biggest corruption cases in history, Paddy Cosgrave – currently appealing via Twitter/X to that great moral exemplar Elon Musk to speak at his web conference – tweeted that “in Ireland she would have been appointed by FFG to the board of RTÉ or some other state board. And that’s the truth”. It’s not even a version of the truth in 2024. He has 97,000 followers, apparently. What message does that send to any aspiring young politician?

An early 2013 interview I did with three young politicians lingers in the memory, mainly because of what it told us about those who try. The three had arrived into national politics in 2011 radiating youth and energy in the great post-crash wave of new blood. But only two years in, Labour TD John Lyons, a soft-spoken teacher from Ballymun, was shocked at the suddenness of the descent into abuse, “at how difficult [it was] to go out in your own community and actually be seen as a human being ...”

He noted the “horrendous things” said on Facebook, a topic which had consumed political discourse since the tragic death of the junior minister Shane McEntee shortly before, and he recalled one of his first public meetings where he had tried “to be balanced and fair and to say the truth – which was that the issue was very complex” but was torn to shreds. His relationship broke up, nudged partly by his all-consuming job.

Lyons had set out to do right. Most of the new TDs, no matter what party, genuinely ran for a cause, he believed. “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.”


At one parliamentary party meeting Lyons was in tears because he’d “been thinking about 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.” And so it happened.

Lyons lost his seat in the 2016 political carnage when Labour seats fell from 37 to seven.

Sinn Féin’s Kathryn Reilly, the youngest, highly articulate member of that Oireachtas, arrived in the Seanad with a thorough grasp of the system and looking for a reason to retain the upper house. Two years in she had yet to find it; it was just a replication of the Dáil. Ironically, she symbolised part of the problem; unusually, she was prepared to admit 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”. She may have been too honest. Come the 2016 general election, she was “cast aside”, as she described it, by Sinn Féin.

Of the three interviewees, only one survived politically. The one was Simon Harris of Fine Gael, then 26 with the confidence of a long-time lobbyist and insider but the pent-up energy of a racehorse. His frustration was not with the outsider abuse – “most of it is orchestrated” – but with the “bubble” inside, such as the opposition who peddled lines like, “I’m here representing ordinary working people”. “Well, who or what am I representing? The extraordinary, nonworking people?”

He also had a clear problem with the patronising “ah, bless him ... young lads need to learn to hold their nerve” attitude from veteran politicians and he was willing to bite back: “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?”

He wanted draft budgets to be sent to committee for other parties’ opinions and was looking enviously across to the House of Commons where MPs could vote against their own government and still stay in the fold. He feared the herd mentality within parties and parliament and wanted a more representative Dáil. He was itching for reform.

That kind of ambition will probably never impress the likes of Cosgrave because it requires a heap of stoicism, patience and compromise, all for the common good. Like every power system on Earth it also attracts charlatans, idiots, narcissists and sociopaths – though probably not as many as the omnipotent tech sector, which monetises people’s lives and profits from hate.

Harris calls himself an “accidental politician” because he began by campaigning as a teenager for educational supports for people with autism such as his brother. But there is nothing accidental or exceptional about that. Most aspirant politicians are driven by community need or itching to reform a system.

Part of Harris’s daily duty is to call up the spirit that fuelled him in his 20s and encourage the good ones of all stripes to remember why he and they are there. It’s easy to hurl abuse, great for clicks and the tech moguls’ bottom line. To step forward and declare you want to serve in spite of it requires brave, old-fashioned character. The electorate would do well to remember that too.