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Retiring TDs reflect on Enda and Leo, their time in the Dáil and the 'slowness' of the system

Eighteen TDs who were elected in 2016 have decided not to run in the general election – but what have some of them learnt.

FRUSTRATING IS THE word many of the retiring TDs who have decided not to contest the next election are using when asked to describe their time in the 32nd Dáil.

So far, 18 TDs who were elected in 2016 have decided not to run in the general election. Those that spoke to TheJournal.ie have said it was a tough decision to make, one that conjures up an array of emotions. 

But when asked to reflect on their time in the Dáil, most describe their frustration at just how slow the wheels of power move – something any new, successful election candidates are soon to find out. 

Independent TD Michael Harty announced recently that he would not seek to return to the Dáil, and will return to his GP practice.

The Clare doctor ran a rural practice in the county for 32 years. His decision to enter politics in 2016 was sparked by his involvement in grassroots campaign: No Doctor No Village.

Now, Harty says it has not been possible to source a locum doctor to take his place for another four years, and he will return to his clinic.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie about his decision, he said trying to influence change in the Dáil was “very frustrating”. He said he didn’t know what to expect when he entered Leinster House as a first-time TD four years ago, but said he was idealistic. 

As a GP, he had ideas for the health service, but they fell on deaf ears a lot of time, he said, stating that such incidences increased when Leo Varadkar took over as Taoiseach.

Harty said if you had a good idea, he expected to get a good hearing: “I didn’t get that. That had me taken aback.

“Enda Kenny was very open,” he said, recalling how he was available for a conversation on any issue. 

“That changed when Leo took over,” said Harty, who said he only met with the Taoiseach once over a two-year period, despite attempts to secure a meeting with him on a health brief.

Harty said early on in his stint, he supported the government by abstaining in key votes. “I didn’t get a whole lot in return,” he said. The Clare TD said he was proud of the work he did on the Sláintecare plan – a 10-year project to reform the Irish health service.

He hopes progress will be made in its implementation, but hit out against Health Minister Simon Harris, who he said is “picking little bits” from the plan “that suits his agenda”. 

Harty hopes the next government – which he believes will be a minority Fianna Fáil government supported by the Green Party – will push Sláintecare forward. 

Former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, who has been a TD for nine years, is emotional to end his representation of Louth but doesn’t have the same feelings about leaving Leinster House. 

“[It] is a bubble,” he said, adding that the majority who enter politics do have a genuine sense of public service.

“But then they get caught up in the thing. It is beyond me how anyone who lives in a community could be oblivious to their responsibilities in terms of fairness and decency. We need to judge our society not by how many millionaires we have but by how people with disabilities, sick people or the elderly, how they are treated.

“I see it as moving my activism into another place. The work that I have done I tried to focus on national issues in the real sense of the all-island, in terms of the Northern institutions, Brexit and a united Ireland,” he said.

When asked if he will play a role in Sinn Féin, he said: “Yes, of course, as long as my health allows me, and as long as the party wants me… I think a life of activism is a life well spent.

“I was first elected in 1982, a long time ago… it is a privilege to be elected by your peers in any forum,” he said. While Adams had kind words to say about all the staff who keep the lights on across government, he did not have the same for members of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in the last Dáil.

Votes against the government in the last Dáil were rendered “meaningless” because Fianna Fáil “talked the talk but never walked the walk” describing the party as effectively being in coalition with Fine Gael.

Previous Dáils he served in were a lot more “confrontational and adversarial”, he said.

However, he concedes he did have a particularly good relationship with Fianna Fáil’s Albert Reynolds, who served as Taoiseach from 1992 to 1994.

“Albert Reynolds and his wife Kathleen. I like to think I got on with many taoisigh I worked with, there’s been quite a few over the years, but Albert welcomed me, and Kathleen welcomed me and Martin [McGuinness] into their home even, he was very down to earth, he got the stuff about the north… it was about recognising people’s mandates and talking,” he said.

Arguably had Albert not been there, had not been in the spring of his term we wouldn’t have had the big breakthrough.

“I have very fond memories of Albert and I don’t think he gets enough credit.”

Adams believes it is “mind-boggling” that the last government would not even discuss planning for a united Ireland, and hit out against Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan and the role he played in the proposed RIC commemorations. He denied that the reaction from the public means it will hold back the possibility of a united Ireland, calling such an assertion “nonsense”.

“Charlie Flanagan took a solo run,” he said, adding:

“If this was 1916 all over again, we would be in the GPO with Pearse and Connolly and Markievicz. Where would Charlie Flanagan be? He’d be with John Redmond.

“He ignored the special committee [on commemorations] he didn’t go to the Cabinet, it was an insult, it was offensive.”

When asked what one of his highlights in the Dáil is, he said gaining seats in the last election, stating that he could not help but be proud seeing his TDs “speaking truth to power”. 

The Fine Gael exodus

Fine Gael is the outgoing government but it also has some outgoing TDs such as West Cork TD Jim Daly. 

While he came to prominence by ensuring the air space was cleared for Santa Claus in 2016, he was appointed the junior minister for health, something he refers to as a high point of his political career. 

“As a minister, you learn very quickly what you can and can’t do, your capacity can be limited, and the system will always remain,” he said when asked if he also felt frustration, even while being in power. 

Daly described being a minister as like running on a treadmill. “You can push the incline, up the speed, but the time will also remain” which he said is understandably frustrating when you are eager to get things done. 

Having served under both Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar, he said their styles are “very different”. Daly said they both had their strengths and weaknesses – describing Kenny as a very “personable guy”. Varadkar is not a “thumbs up kind of guy” but he is very capable, said Daly.

Looking across to the other benches, Daly said Clare Daly, who is now an MEP in Brussels, is someone he admires. 

Describing her as “genuine, sincere, articulate and capable” he said anyone entering politics should aspire to be like her.

Another junior minister exiting is Finian McGrath, TD for Dublin North Central. Having served as a TD since 2002, he was made the Minister of State for Disabilities in 2016.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie he said it was a difficult decision to make, and one that was “very emotional”. 

McGrath said he has been in politics for 21 years, moving from being a local councillor to a minister of State. 

“It has been a very big part of my life, I’ve enjoyed, I’ve loved it,” he said.

“I’m glad I am going on my own terms. I have spoken to some politicians who never got that opportunity and they have never gotten over it, so this is a much better feeling,” he said. 

Reflecting on his highs in office, McGrath said it was being appointed a minister for disabilities, and also getting the Irish government to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

One of his fondest memories is travelling to the United Nations with his two daughters, including his daughter Clíodhna, who was born with Down Syndrome. 

“I remember being there for the convention on disabilities and walking around the UN with them. It was a very special moment for me.”

“Frustration” also comes up though. 

“I remember getting into office as a minister and thinking we’ll get the UN Convention signed and it would be straight forward,” he said, before explaining the “slowness of things”. 

One of his lows in the Dáil came with the privilege of serving in government: collective accountability. 

“I’ve always been independent. But at times I had to go against policy issues I would advocate for,” he said, stating you get to say your piece at the Cabinet table, and give your view but ultimately a decision is made by the majority.

“That was difficult. But I loved the gig, I loved every minute of it,” he added. 

As we enter into the second week of the campaign trail, newbie TDs should take heed of the warnings from veteran politicians about the “slowness of the system”. Will they be able to bring about reforms, and possible change? We’ll have to wait and see what the electorate decides. 

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