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'You have to learn on your feet very quickly': First time TDs on adjusting to life in Leinster House

TheJournal.ie spoke with three candidates who have just completed their first term as TDs in Leinster House.

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WITH THE GENERAL ELECTION just days away, candidates are busy getting their final days of campaigning in before the nation goes to the polls. 

There are plenty of familiar faces staring down at voters from lamposts all over the country. 

Many others are campaigning to become TDs for the first time, and no doubt some of those will be elected. 

So with that in mind, TheJournal.ie caught up with some of those who have just completed their first term in Leinster House to see how they fared and what might be in store for those fresh faces who will be starting their new gig in weeks to come. 

Solidarity-People Before Profit: Gino Kenny

irish-parliament-sits Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny Source: Niall Carson via PA Images

Gino Kenny has been a TD for the Dublin Mid-West constituency since the 2016 general election. 

He served as a councillor for South Dublin County Council from 2009 to 2016. He had unsuccessfully contested the general elections of 2007 and 2011. 

TheJournal.ie caught up with Kenny recently and asked him a number of questions about his term in Leinster House. 

How did you get on finding your feet in the first few months? 

“I found it very, very difficult to adapt to the Dáil the first maybe 18 months just because of how procedurally it works and sometimes the chaotic nature of being a TD. I did find the first few years quite difficult.” 

What’s one thing you wouldn’t have expected being a TD? 

“I think there’s 12 cameras in the Dáil chambers itself and there’s journalists there and there’s TDs on government benches and all that. The part I still find difficult is that when you’re speaking nobody is listening, generally, in the Dáil itself when there’s very few people there. 

“That the part I find kind of difficult to overcome because when you’re speaking about something, essentially nobody seems to be listening but obviously you’re speaking to a bigger audience.” 

How did you find keeping a work/life balance?

“I have a balance between what I do politically and what I do in my own life. I do a lot of walking, cycling. I step away from politics for a number of days and walk in the mountains and that’s what keeps me going half the time.” 

You had no experience bringing forward legislation before being elected, did you have support to help you do this? 

“You have to kind of learn it yourself. You have to learn on your feet very, very quickly. I had Richard Boyd Barrett there, he was there for five years. Essentially, you have to learn on your feet.

“I put forward one piece of legislation in four years and that piece of legislation went on to change government policy which was good, even though the bill itself didn’t get legislation for.” 

Kenny brought forward the Private Member’s Bill on medicinal cannabis use in 2016. This bill was subsequently rejected by an Oireachtas Committee. However, Health Minister Simon Harris went on to sign legislation last year to allow for the operation of the Medical Cannabis Access Programme on a pilot basis for five years. 

Have you any stand-out moments from the past four years? 

“I think on the evening that we got the medicinal cannabis Bill through, it was the second reading of the Bill in December 2016 when it passed to the next stage. 

“To me, that was, I think, the most outstanding moment of the four years I was there because I knew once that happened the issue of medicinal cannabis wasn’t going backwards, it was going forward. Even though it has been extremely frustrating … I know it has pushed the government into changing their policy and, in time, thousands of people will get access.” 

Sinn Féin’s housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin 

sinn-fein-ard-fheis Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin Source: Niall Carson via PA Images

Eoin Ó Broin has been a TD for the Dublin Mid-West constituency since the 2016 general election. 

He was co-opted by Sinn Féin in 2013 onto South Dublin County Council. He had unsuccessfully contested the general elections of 2007 and 2011. 

Since taking up his role as a Sinn Féin TD, Ó Broin has acted as the party’s spokesperson on housing. He has brought forward numerous bills in relation to the issue over the past four years. 

TheJournal.ie spoke to him about the past four years in Leinster House. 

How did you get on finding your feet in the first few months? 

“Well I was lucky because I worked as a [policy advisor] for the previous Oireachtas term, so that meant I had a very good sense of how the place worked. So, that does give you a significant advantage, say, over a first-time TD who is new in the place.” 

What were some of the challenges you faced over the past four years? 

“It’s less the challenges and just the pace of Oireachtas business is slow. While very early on in the term I had started drafting legislation, the first bill that I tabled and we voted on was the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill 2016 … while that bill was defeated even if it had have been passed it can still be a slow process to get the bill through to full completion.

“I think it’s the slowness of the institution and the way in which Fine Gael, I suppose in a very undemocratic way, would try and block the majority of decisions in the Dáil that they didn’t like.” 

How did you find keeping a work/life balance?

“What’s a work/life balance? Ah no, keep in mind for the bulk of those four years my partner Lynn Boylan was in the European Parliament and in some senses that worked for us quite well because the three nights of the week where the Dáil was sitting late she’d obviously be in the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg.

“You just carve out time for yourselves at weekends or making sure you take holidays. This isn’t a 9 to 5 job and you know that when you get into it.

“And particularly given the portfolio I have, on top of the constituency work, it’s also a clear commitment that you make. TDs are well paid, in fact TDs are overpaid. You’re supported by great staff, so the flip side of that is you’re not working a 35-40 hour week, you’re working 50-70 hours depending.”

Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan

divorce-referendum-in-ireland Fine Gael TD and Culture Minister Josepha Madigan Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Josepha Madigan has served as a Fine Gael TD for the Dublin Rathdown constituency since February 2016. She took up the role as Minister for Culture in 2017. 

She was also appointed Chair of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight in July 2017. 

In 2018, Madigan took on the role of coordinator for the Fine Gael Yes campaign in the Referendum to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. 

With a busy four years behind her, Madigan spoke to TheJournal.ie about how she balanced it all. 

How did you get on finding your feet in the first few months? 

“When I went in initially, what I had decided was I would practice law still on a Monday and Friday and I would be in the Dáil on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. But I realised very quickly that it’s very difficult to do that. So I actually had to leave the practice after a year.

“I have the utmost respect and admiration for anybody who does it, but in order for me to fully designate myself to the Oireachtas committees I was on, one of which was the Public Accounts Committee, which is extremely demanding, and then I was made chair of the Budgetary Oversight Committee, so I really just wasn’t in a position to continue both.

“That’s an important point because I think people think that their lives aren’t going to change. Your life will change radically and the workload is such that there really isn’t time for very much if you’re going to really give it your all and give it 150%, which I wanted to do.”

Did you find you had a support system to help with learning the inner workings of Leinster House within Fine Gael?

“You’re definitely not taught anything by anybody. Every TD in the Dáil has the same support system as everyone else. Everybody has a parliamentary assistant and a secretary. Then, you’re obviously in a party or in a non-party. So, obviously I had support from a policy perspective in terms of Fine Gael and what priorities I wanted to make.”

Over the past four years, Madigan brought forward two Private Members’ Bills forward, one of which being the 38th Amendment of the Constitution (Dissolution of Marriage) Bill 2016. This subsequently led to the referendum on divorce. 

“For me, it was worth leaving my law practice in order to do that because … from a family law perspective obviously that’s what I did.

“So, even if I did nothing else in the future, that’s one thing that I’ve done that I know will have a demonstrable impact on people’s live. I was really grateful for the opportunity to be able to do that.”

How did you find keeping a work/life balance?

“You don’t really have a life. Really, your work comes first and you just have to accept that. 

“One thing I have always been mindful of, always, when I went into politics is that it’s not forever. It’s such a privilege as well but you really have to use that time that you have for the better good.” 

What’s something you wouldn’t have expected about being a TD? 

“It’s a significant jump from a council chamber to the Dáil chamber. Your very first day does feel quite surreal because you’re looking at people that you may have never, unless you were involved in politics for a long time … you’re sitting opposite people that you’ve just seen on television, then you’re part of that.”

Have you any stand-out moments from the past four years? 

“Being campaign coordinator for Repeal the Eighth, that was a huge moment in Dublin Castle. I played my part and many, many other people did as well.”

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