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Developing the 'hard neck': TDs on death threats, abuse, and their coping strategies

Is enough being done to help out TDs and Senators cope with the abuse they receive and the difficult cases they have to deal with in their constituencies? TheJournal.ie takes a look.

Leinster House (File photo)
Leinster House (File photo)
Image: James Stringer via Flickr/Creative Commons

JOHN HALLIGAN HAS a file in his Leinster House office which has been getting bigger and bigger over the last three years.

In it is abusive correspondence he has received since he’s been in the Dáil with the file having swelled significantly this past year as politicians and the country grappled with the complex and controversial issue of abortion.

“One letter brought up my mother, they knew my mother had died and they said that she would be turning in her grave thinking about how I was voting,” the Independent TD, who was also the subject of a death threat earlier this year, said.

“I kept that from some of my family… you just got terribly abusive letters, abusive phonecalls and so on and you just wonder about the calibre of people that do that. Do they not understanding that we’re human beings? That we can be hurt?”

John Lyons, a Labour TD, has a more recent experience off the back of his appearance on the ‘Looking After No 1′ programme:

“I can remember seeing a tweet to do with an advertisement for the documentary and somebody, who I’d never met, essentially said: ‘I’ve just nearly vomited after seeing John Lyons’. They were using my Twitter handle, and you’re kind of thinking: ‘What makes you want to say that?’”

Then there was the time around a year ago when the former teacher wrote an article for The Herald, advocating same-sex marriage. A few days later he got an anonymous letter to his office in Leinster House: “It was a cut-out thing, and there were lots of vulgarities, saying I would go to hell.”

Another first-time TD, Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy, has occasionally found himself on the receiving end of what he describes as “hassle”.

“People come up to you in public, with a pint on them, and they have issues and you become the focal point for their anger, that can be difficult. You try and talk them out of the situation and you go back to the night. But I’ve had to leave places before because of people hassling us,” he said.

‘Thick skin’

It’s now a year since Shane McEntee, the Fine Gael TD and junior minister, died in the weeks after he received a torrent of abuse for comments he made about Budget measures. There was no single reason for the Meath East deputy’s death, but at his funeral his brother Gerry hit out at “the faceless people” who criticised him online.

While there was brief debate about the abuse politicians have to endure in the weeks after McEntee’s death there has been little talk about it since. TDs who spoke candidly to TheJournal.ie in recent weeks all referred to the need for a “hard neck” or a “thick skin” and “developing coping strategies” to deal with the abuse they receive.

But is that really good enough? After all, if our politicians are going to talk about the importance of mental health funding and access to services that ensure mental well-being, should they not practice as they preach?

Murphy thinks so: “If we are going to be serious about addressing mental health in this country, and every aspect of it, then there should be services in every place of work, that should be the norm.

“Politicians should be entitled to have it for their health and well-being and if they can’t be strong enough themselves to make that statement, then that’s a bigger problem.”

The complex position of TD, or indeed Senator, means that as they do not have the same employee entitlements as others would. The Oireachtas does not provide any formal support structure for politicians that allows them to avail of counselling, support or advice on matters be they work-related or personal.

In such a large workspace where there is a provision for, as we well know, two bars should there not be some sort of services for deputies and senators and their staffs to avail of?

Again, Murphy certainly thinks so. He continued: “I think its necessary because again a politician is always a politician.

“You’re always kind of ‘on’ in a way, you’re always in the frontline and we’re not trained as counsellors. I am sure counsellors get their own counselling as well. I think that politicians would benefit from having someone to talk to.”

Oireachtas support

An Oireachtas spokesperson said that a counselling service is available through the civil service for employees who are paid by the Houses of the Oireachtas, but that does not include TDs, Senators or many of their staff.

The spokesperson said that in cases where they are approached by politicians or their staff who complain of receiving abuse they will offer advice and help on the best course of action. Most political parties also have support structures in place for their members, but some, such as Fine Gael, declined to go into detail due to the sensitive nature of the topic.

“Fine Gael does have a support structure in place, and is constantly evaluating it to ensure that it is effective, appropriate and fit for purpose,” a spokesperson for the party said.

Sinn Féin said it employs a full time professional management team within the Oireachtas to provides support to all members and staff in accordance with its human resources policy and procedures. “The party does monitor and record the number and nature of such threats or abusive emails and do keep a record in this regard,” a spokesperson said.

Fianna Fáil and Labour did not respond to questions.

Further insight into the kind of issues facing TDs, particularly those first-timers of whom so many were elected in 2011, is provided in At Home in the New House, a study published earlier this year.

The report noted that “many TDs (and often their assistants too) are deeply affected by the trauma and despair which they encounter on a daily basis” adding that one Fine Gael TD spoke of “horrendous abuse” on Facebook and Twitter.

But it also found that many deputies reported being initially overwhelmed at their workload and the issues they faced at their constituency clinics. Halligan can certainly identify with this as he listed the many difficult cases that have come before him in his Waterford constituency office.

“I was with a girl who came in to the office,” he said. “Herself and her boyfriend had been going together since they were 15, they married, and they were losing their house. Both of them had lost their jobs and the week before they came in they had sold their TV and their car to keep their house.

“The girl said to me: ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ And then she collapsed. In spite of everything I tried to do I wasn’t able to save her house. I remember meeting her father and he said she had had a nervous breakdown. I was close to tears, I was really upset about it. I remember going back home and sitting down and I was distraught, on my own.”

Leaving it in the office

Halligan believes there is a lack of awareness amongst the public of the role that some TDs take on in being essentially counsellors to constituents who often find themselves in destitute circumstances:

“I don’t think the general public recognise that. We are a counsellor for lots of people and often we would get people who would come into your office and they know you can’t help them, but they will talk to you and you will talk to them. All of us would be affected by that and you try to do your best [for them].”

Murphy tries not to bring the work home with him.

“You have to try and find a way to leave that stuff in the office,” he said, adding: “My friends or my girlfriend or whatever can only handle so much and you don’t want to make them upset. So you can’t always tell them everything.”

But Halligan finds his work pattern and long hours have their own impacts on his relationships:

“She [his partner] said: ‘You are in Dublin three days a week, you are not back till 8 or 9 o’clock. She always says ‘Jesus John, we don’t spend that much time together’ and I think of other fellas with young kids.”.

The unique status of politicians means that there are no plans for the Oireachtas to introduce any sort of counselling or support services in Leinster House though members can always approach their parties.

In any case, Lyons believes that even if some sort of formal counselling was available to members, it’s unlikely it would even be used, and he again returns to that phrase: “the hard neck”.

“By nature of somebody coming into politics, if they don’t come in with a hard neck then they learn coping strategies [to deal] with the absolutely horrendous things thrown at you,” he added.

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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