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'It's been politics by Zoom': How first-time TDs have found the Dáil in the time of Covid

Like everyone else it’s been about adapting to the circumstances.

A socially-distanced press conference on the Plinth.
A socially-distanced press conference on the Plinth.
Image: Rollingnews.ie

WHEN THE 33rd Dáil met for the first time on 20 February this year, there was all the cheering, singing and excitement that we’ve come to expect from the occasion. 

For the 48 new TDs that took their seats that day it was especially momentous, but none could have expected that their job would be so utterly consumed by a pandemic that affected every aspect of society. 

As it has done for everyone else, plans and priorities have been upended and practices have changed.

“It’s been hard to separate it from any part of politics,” Labour’s Duncan Smith TD tells TheJournal.ie. “Everything else is now viewed through the lens of Covid.”

He says this includes questions over whether there’ll be money for big-ticket items important to his constituents, like Metrolink and Dart upgrades, but also on the smaller things that people contact him about. 

“Even on a more local individual level when people contact you on housing queries, or medical card queries or anything like that, you’re dealing with delays, often understandable delays caused by people having to work from home.

As in, sometimes there are things that just need to be signed and people aren’t in the office to do it. It means there are delays and it adds further anxiety to people. 

The Fingal TD is his party’s whip and is on the Oireachtas Business Committee, so it means lots of meetings. Meetings, he says, that are almost all online. 

Smith there have been 42 or so committee meetings so far, “the vast, vast majority are via Microsoft Teams”. 

For newer TDs, the Dáil’s new normal adds an extra level of difficulty. For them to do their job effectively, it means building relationships and working with other deputies they haven’t met before. 

These are requirements that are just more difficult in the world we now inhabit. 

labour 742 Labour's Fingal TD Duncan Smith. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

“These are relationships, work professional relationships, that you would develop a lot more quickly if you were in a room together, be able to talk face to face and able to have the debates back and forth,” Smith says.

We’ve all started to understand Zoom etiquette and Teams etiquette, you go around the room to people and come back. It’s not a natural structure for a meeting, you do build relationships but it’s a lot more gradual and not as quick as you probably would if we were sitting cheek by jowl in the chamber and committee room.

Instead of cheek by jowl, TDs have split their time between the vast Convention Centre Dublin and a socially-distanced Leinster House.

The use of the Convention Centre is costly but is required so all TDs can be in the chamber safely to vote. While it was used exclusively a number of months ago, TDs can now debate with reduced numbers in Leinster House while the Convention Centre is used for blocks of votes. 

Most TDs acknowledge that the set up is not ideal but is a slight inconvenience compared to the much bigger problems people are facing. 

One issue the cavernous floors of the CCD does present is that it doesn’t make it easy to meet other deputies.  

Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon explains that one problem he’s had is trying to build new relationships with TDs from other parties. He describes this as being “almost impossible”.

“The only TDs I’d have a relationship with are the ones I knew previously. Coincidentally, both education spokespersons for Labour and Sinn Féin I would have known them personally. Aodhán (Ó Ríordáin) I’ve known since I was a kid and I actually used to share an office with Donnchadh (Ó Laoghaire).”

I’d know both of those TDs but I haven’t been able to develop any new relationships with any new TDs. Politics is very oppositional and I’ve no problem getting stuck into that, but I’d also like to have a cup of tea with somebody who I was arguing with in the chamber.

All of the TDs who spoke to TheJournal.ie mentioned that online meetings have become a big part of their work. Be it for better or worse.

Gannon says that not being able to get out and meet people has been a challenge. 

“I wouldn’t have gotten elected had I not been in community centres a couple times a week, not not being visual and active around the constituency, working for the area.”

That’s totally gone and it’s left me feeling a little bit anxious, because not being able to do that kind of feels like you’re doing less than what you should be, at times.

“Zoom certainly helps. Now, when somebody wants to meet me you send out a Zoom link and all of a sudden you’re talking to this person from your living room. It’s not the same, not everybody has technology, so it’s not easy, but it has been helpful.” 

Gannon adds that the stress of trying to deal with it all has been difficult for him personally: 

In the early phases I got my running back to a very high standard. Then, when the weeks pressed on, that fell into eating a lot more than I should. I’m back doing the running now. I think my own mental health suffered a lot too because when you’re in the middle of a pandemic, you want to be helpful and you’re under a lot of spotlight. It was difficult to manage myself personally, but think I’ve managed to get a hold of it.

0110 Gary Gannon Gary Gannon arriving at Leinster House. Source: RollingNews.ie

Smith has similar sentiments when asked about the difficulties in staying in touch with people via virtual meetings. 

“We’ve been politics by Zoom since we’ve been elected,” he says.

There are things we can do remotely, but I do worry about councillors and TDs and senators not being able to have that physical interaction with constituents. People already feel that politics and politicians are distant from them. If we physically remove politicians away from their communities I think that will only compound that.

Fine Gael’s Emer Higgins was also elected to the Dáil for the first time in February. 

A former chief of staff in the office of PayPal’s vice president in Dublin, Higgins says her business background means that she was well-used to Zoom meetings. 

For her, the challenge has been connecting with constituents as well as colleagues via computer.  

“A lot of my day-to-day work has transferred to online. So for example, there was a big local issue in my area during lockdown. Traditionally, I would have had a public meeting on it. But instead, I did an online meeting. There was an awful lot of people who’d never attended online meetings who kind of clicked into and it was great from that perspective to at least have that level of engagement.”

I did my clinics online as well, you go on and book a slot, just like a real one. In one way social media has been great. An awful lot of people who were never on WhatsApp or never on video calls or Facebook started using those kinds of forums. 

PastedImage-30899 Fine Gael's Emer Higgins in the Dáil.

One thing Higgins feels she missed out on was her party’s think-in, which under normal circumstances would have been her first as a member of the parliamentary party.

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“Instead of doing it as an away day in a hotel with a dinner afterwards and a chance to get to know people in a more relaxed environment, we did it over Zoom over two days.”

For Sinn Féin’s Rose Conway-Walsh the transition to the Dáil in this era has been slightly less dramatic, having been a senator before being elected as the party’s first TD for Mayo. 

Conway-Walsh agrees that Covid has consumed all else politically, but that this is not surprising because it’s all people are talking about too. 

“It really kind of gives you a feel of how much people are suffering and worrying. And the real fear that they’re trying to handle a pandemic. Trying to stay safe and just survive through it. People are almost in survival mode.”

Conway-Walsh is the party’s higher education spokesperson and makes several references to how this has been affected by Covid:

I’m really concerned that affordability is stopping people from accessing third-level education, and I’m even more concerned since Covid, because so many students have lost their jobs and so many families are under financial stress.

Belmullet is a long way from Dublin and she acknowledges that travelling between the two places means she’s aware that you have to be cautious. 

Even in terms of your own work, your work here and you’re constituents, you’re conscious of only doing essential travel. You’re also conscious that you’re going, as it is now, from a Level 3 county to Level 2. So you’re extra conscious of your safety and the safety of the people that you meet.

Conway-Walsh agrees that there’s been a change in people’s attitude towards the politics of Covid in recent months, something she puts squarely at the door of the government. 

I think in terms of the makeup of government and the coalition, people don’t know who’s in charge. There’s one-upmanship that’s being played in particular between Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, I don’t think that’s helpful at all. I think you need very solid, clear messages to people.

sinn fein 082 Sinn Féin's Rose Conway-Walsh. Source: Sam Boal

Most of the rookie TDs agree that there’s been a waning of the public’s willingness to listen to politicians in recent months, but disagree slightly about what’s happened. 

Gannon says the new government has been “entirely arrogant and dismissive to the opposition”, citing this week’s Leaving Cert controversy and the almighty row about Dáil speaking rights back in July

Labour’s Smith says his party has been “pretty vociferous from the start” but that all politics felt a bit false until the new coalition was formed in June.

“We have to remember we had that interregnum government, a minority government for that couple of months period. Everyone was kind of a bit unsure, but now we have a government with a solid majority and a very clear opposition.”

Higgins says that any change in tone is more of a case of “politics being politics”: 

“It’s really important that we all wear the green jersey, that we do all work together. This is a global fight and we need to make sure that we’re all pulling in the same direction and in the right direction.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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