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In 85 years, just seven TDs have resigned from the Dáil. Who and why?

Excluding those who have resigned their seat to take up another political position or ill-health, there have been just a handful of resignations from parliament over principle or controversy down the years. Who are they? And why have there been so few?

In one of the most high-profile Dáil resignations, George Lee left Leinster House in 2010.
In one of the most high-profile Dáil resignations, George Lee left Leinster House in 2010.
Image: James Horan/Photocall Ireland

Note: This article was originally published 1 July 2012 but has been updated and republished today in light of the resignation of Patrick Nulty.

WHEN MICK WALLACE and his company’s tax affairs recently spent a whole week in the news there was considerable talk about the possibility of him resigning his seat in the Dáil.

In the end the Wexford deputy stood up in the chamber and said that he would not be resigning having taken the pulse of the people who elected him.

“I have never been good at quitting,” he told his fellow TDs. The same words could easily be applied to many Dáil deputies who have faced calls for their resignation down through the years but never actually followed through with it.

In the entire history of Dáil Eireann going back to 1919 there have been a total of 1,239 TDs but according to our own calculations when you discount the turbulent first four dálaí - when there were numerous resignations as Ireland struggled for independence – as well as striking off resignations to assume another political office and resignations because of ill-health just seven TDs have resigned over matters of principle or controversy.

The Famous Seven

The first came in March 1946 when the independent TD William Dwyer, a former unsuccessful Fine Gael candidate in the 1943 general election and company director, resigned his seat in the Cork Borough two years after he was elected. Little is known of his reasons for doing so but we do know that he stood at the 1948 general election for the Cork East constituency but was not successful in winning a seat and did not serve in the lower house again.

It was another 12 years before we had another resignation and that was in May 1958 when the independent TD and member of the Unemployed Protest Committee John ‘Jack’ Murphy stepped down from his seat in the Dublin South-Central constituency just over a year after he had been elected.

His story is a colourful one, known in some quarters as ‘the man in the black beret’ he made history when he became the first unemployed person ever elected to a national legislature. His manifesto was simple: to put the issue of unemployment at the centre of political discourse in Ireland at a time when unemployment and emigration were high.

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Jack Murphy in the late 1950s (Wikimedia Commons)

But his frustrations with a lack of progress on this issue led to him taking the rare action he did just over a year after he was elected when he resigned his seat and later emigrated to Canada. “I was fed up with the callous indifference of the big parties to the situation of the workers. I resigned as a protest against appalling indifference of those parties to the unemployed,” he said later. Murphy returned to Ireland and held various jobs before he died in 1984.

If Jack Murphy’s departure was on a matter of principal then the same could be said of the Fianna Fáil TD Kevin Boland in May 1970 in when the experienced minister, who was at the time responsible for local government, became considerably peeved at Fianna Fáil’s handling of the new crisis in the North – The Troubles. The conflict had the effect of splitting the party between those who wanted action taken and those who urged caution.

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Kevin Boland on his land at farmers vale Rathcoole, Co Dublin in 1998 (Photocall Ireland)

Boland became so angry on one occasion that he allegedly resigned his ministerial portfolio and his Dáil seat only to have both rejected by the Taoiseach. In the end he would eventually resign for good in solidarity with Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney after the pair were caught up in the Arms Crisis. Boland would make headlines at the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis a year later when he appeared on stage and urged people to join him only to be shouted down by an enraged Patrick Hillery and a jubilant crowd.

He later founded his own party, Aontacht Eireann (Irish Unity), and continued to criticise the government’s policy on the North but was never elected again and died in 2001.

It was 27-years before there would be another Dáil resignation of a similar nature and again it would be Fianna Fáil. In this case the Dublin North TD Ray Burke would step down over the revelations that he had received IR£80,000 from a property developer in connection with Dublin City Council’s decision to rezone certain land.

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Ray Burke in 2004

These allegations would lead to growing concerns about Burke’s suitability for a senior cabinet role and would eventually see him resign on 7 October 1997. Later the Planning Tribunal was established and found that Burke was “corrupt”.

Not only did it examine the planning payments but also his perceived bias against RTÉ and large bribes he received in connection with the establishment of Century Radio in the 90s when he was Communications Minister. He later served four months in jail after he he was found guilty of making false tax returns and has kept a low profile since his release.

If Burke’s departure was all about controversy then George Lee’s resignation of his Fine Gael seat in Dublin South just nine months after he was elected was about frustration. The former RTÉ economics editor had secured over 50 per cent of first preference votes in a 2009 by-election amid a wave of anti-government sentiment and frustration over the economy.

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George Lee outside Leinster House (James Horan/Photocall Ireland)

The man who had reported on our economic boom and bust was seen as someone with solutions who could formulate Fine Gael’s economic policy on its path to government. But it wasn’t long before he claimed that he found himself sidelined within the parliamentary party and announced his resignation on 8 February 2010 having had “virtually no influence or input” into shaping the party’s economic policies. He returned to RTÉ where he is currently presenting on radio and television.

Later that year the ostracised Fianna Fáil TD for Donegal North-East, Jim McDaid, would also resign his seat just months before a general election on 2 November 2010. The former Tourism and Sport Minister had been outside of the parliamentary party for two years at that stage after he had opposed the government over a vote on the cervical cancer vaccination programme.

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Jim McDaid in 2004 (Photocall Ireland)

Often controversial, McDaid had said he planned to retire from politics in 2006 only to renege on that promise. He subsequently claimed that he had received no support from Fianna Fáil during the 2007 general election and his poor voting record in the Dáil was also heavily publicised and criticised. In his resignation letter he criticised the government and called for an election before the end of 2012.

On 22 March 2014, Patrick Nulty, the independent TD for Dublin West, shocked the political world by resigning his seat, pre-empting revelations in the Sunday World that he had sent explicit and inappropriate messages to a 17-year-old girl on Facebook while he was drunk.

While some political observers believed that Nulty, who had been elected as a Labour TD before quitting the party over its role in government, could have weathered the controversy, he said in his resignation statement: “I set myself the highest standards personally and politically.

“Unfortunately due to personal mistakes I have not met those standards in this matter and I will take responsibility for that.”

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Patrick Nulty (Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland)

Why only seven?

Seven is a low number when you consider the many political controversies and issues down through the years. There have of course been many alternative actions taken by representatives such as resigning their ministry or the party whip and going independent.

Perhaps the primary reason there have been so few is that full resignation from the Dáil is effectively resigning your job and becoming unemployed is not usually a decision anyone takes lightly.

In some cases, particularly when a controversy arises, the decision not to resign one’s seat is because of a belief that you did nothing wrong. Political analyst Noel Whelan explains: “In some cases it’s because they don’t want to accept that they did anything wrong. So for example with Michael Lowry when he resigned from Fine Gael but remained an independent.

“Or Liam Lawlor who resigned from Fianna Fáil but stayed on as he didn’t think he did anything wrong. Then there are people who have been elected TDs and become frustrated but generally wait until the next election and step down. There’s been a couple of those. In some ways its logical for them to wait out their term.”

One could always take the principled stand of resigning their seat and standing in a by-election but that presents a logisitical problem particularly in the case of an independent TD.

Say if f that TD was elected with 20 per cent of the vote, resigning and standing in a by-election means they would need over 50 per cent of the vote which is not easily achieved when you face the political machines of the four major parties.

“It’s almost impossible,” according to Whelan. “That’s why Kevin Boland, for example, gave up on principle but didn’t recontenst in the subsequent by-election because he had no hope of winning it.”

“There’s a reluctance to give up something they fought for and resigning is an acknowledgement in some cases that they did something wrong.”

Maybe then there is a logic in setting up a recall system where TDs can effectively be sacked if they’re not up to scratch. But that in itself creates its own problems. In a multi-seat proportional representation system where, for example, 20,000 signatures might be needed on a petition to recall, that could involve supporters of other candidates elected in that constituency clubbing together to seek a removal of a certain TD.

Maybe then an impeachment system in the Dáil would work whereby a two-thirds majority could vote on a motion of impeachment. But that to some extent politicises what is a democratic process, creating its own hazards.

The bottom line is that there is no perfect way to implement a system whereby TDs can be removed from the Dáil if it is the will of the people who put them there outside of an election year. Perhaps acknowledging this there is no commitment in the programme for government to implement any of the aforementioned systems.

Perhaps then it is best left to the drama of a general election, guaranteed every five years where people can elect a  TD and, as Mick Wallace put it so eloquently recently, “discard me when they see fit”.

Did we miss anyone? We checked the records and are pretty confident that seven is the magic number but if we missed anyone, please let us know in the comments.

Author’s note: The title of this story originally stated ’95 years’ when in fact it should have said ’85 years’

Constituency report: Dáil loses 8 TDs in radical boundary shake-up

Video: Mick Wallace’s statement to the Dáil

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