Noel Whelan shows great insight with the “Life of an unsuccessful TD” here. Well done Noel.

The Irish Times – Saturday, August 27, 2011 Going cold turkey after insanity and vanity of politics

Once the elation wears off for newly elected TDs the tedium of political reality sets in, writes NOEL WHELAN

MORE THAN 20 years ago, the RTÉ presenter and politics professor Brian Farrell used to tell his students that one of the saddest people to meet was a young backbench Dáil deputy about a year or so after he or she had first been elected.

They were almost always depressed and frustrated. After years of campaigning to get into Leinster House, they found the life of a politician disappointing.

For the period leading up to the general election they were hyperactive, out in the fresh air, canvassing day in day out, or at meetings and functions where they were the focus of attention as the new candidate on the block. Then on the day of the election count and in its immediate aftermath they were winners. They walked on air for weeks and were seen as new gods in their locality. The excitement and novelty of actually being a TD lasted for weeks, sometime months.

Then, however, the drudgery of Dáil life set in. They found themselves confined to the Leinster House campus day and night three days a week.
They spent the rest of the time travelling to and from Dublin, or criss-crossing their constituency. Apart perhaps from some family time on a Sunday they were at the constant beck and call of constituents but had no real influence or power in national affairs. They felt isolated and impotent at the bottom rung of the usually steep career ladder.

While some new TDs manage to do politics on their terms, most lapse into the typical all-consuming lifestyle of incessant motion, sleep deprivation, disordered eating patterns and, more often than not, weight gain.

Farrell used to say, however, that by contrast, one of happiest people to meet was a former TD about a year or so after he or she had retired or lost their seat. They nearly always looked years younger, lighter and brighter than they were before the election. They spoke of how their quality of life was so much better. They were reconnecting with spouses and getting to know their children.

They would tell of how they were reading again – real books as opposed to just reports or briefings. They were rediscovering long lost sports or pastimes or finding new ones. Many told of how it was not until they had stepped off the hamster’s wheel that they realised what a bizarre life they led during their political years.

All of those who lose their seats, especially those who had enjoyed high office, experience initial feelings of displacement and disorientation but eventually they come to enjoy their new life. Those who have contested and lost the election, as opposed to opting out, also go through an initial depression and sense of public rejection but they too emerge to better quality lives.

Former tánaiste John Wilson surprised many when he suddenly announced his retirement the day after the 1992 election was called. In an interview for a party magazine a year later, he was asked whether he missed politics and replied: “Only in the way you miss a wall if you have been banging your head against it for a year and suddenly its gone.” It was a dramatic characterisation of the sense of release many former deputies experience.

One gets the same sense of release from many of those interviewed for the “Life after Leinster House” series running in this newspaper this week that catches up with them now six months after they lost their seat.

This year’s election saw the highest turnover of TDs to date. Of those who retired or lost their seats, the overwhelming majority were from Fianna Fáil. It was a scattergun backlash against the party, which did not distinguish on the basis of ability, culpability or work rate.
While weak, lazy or culpable TDs were thrown out, many who were able and industrious also lost their seats. Even those with reputations as good constituency workers were replaced notwithstanding the supposed bias towards localism in Ireland.

The working life of a Dáil deputy has, if anything, deteriorated in recent decades. TDs are somewhat better paid, even after recent cuts, and are certainly better resourced with administrative and staffing supports. However, the increasingly competitive and personalised nature of elections in our multiseat system has made the life more demanding. The stranglehold that the executive has over parliament in our political system has made the life of backbenchers on both the opposition and government sides even less rewarding. Politicians, of course, have only themselves to blame for this enduring reality since they are the ones with the power to redesign the system.

The severance arrangements for those choosing or forced to depart from the Oireachtas are much improved on what they were 20 years ago. Those who have family businesses or teaching or other posts to which they can return are cushioned from the economic shock of losing their seat.
For all, however, the psychological blow is still harsh. As one small group of the thousands who have been rendered unemployed or gone through career changes in recent years, former TDs are unlikely to attract much public sympathy.

Their story does, however, give some idea of the peculiar combination of insanity, vanity and a passion to contribute which drives people to political life. Political ambition is a poison and one for which even electoral defeat is not necessarily an antidote. For those who have broken the habit or who have been forced to go cold turkey, a better quality of life is assured.

Those still in the doldrums after their loss, and indeed those still high on the excitement of being newly elected, would be wise to remember that this too shall pass.