ALISON O'CONNOR: Brian Hayes’ early retirement shows how brain drain is undermining politics

It can bore the pants off many but for a considerable number of people politics is an addiction, says Alison O’Connor.

BRIAN Hayes MEP has done an unusual thing in deciding to say goodbye to the voters before they get the chance to say goodbye to him. The announcement by the Dublin MEP that he intends to leave politics caught many, myself included, by surprise.

Brian is a good politician — one of the best I’ve come across. He’s bright. He’s thoughtful. He’s an excellent communicator. He’d toe the party line, but if the whatever it was that he was sent out to defend was utterly daft, he would manage to find a way to communicate that without letting his own side down — no easy trick that.

I was on radio with him once or twice lately where he seemed remarkably relaxed in his approach and I did find myself wondering at that. On one occasion recently, if I remember correctly, he was asked about the Fine Gael general secretary Tom Curran issuing an edict to party councillors saying that since FG was backing Michael D Higgins in the presidential election, they were not to support any other candidate attempting the council route of getting a nomination. Brian snorted and said something along the lines of that approach being poor psychology and there were two chances of it being successful — slim and nil. It was hardly high treason, but in hindsight it indicated a man with his eye on the door.

Once he was elected to the European Parliament in 2014 the Hayes family moved en masse to Brussels. Brian would return to Dublin each week and managed to maintain a higher media profile in that space of time than many of his Leinster House-based colleagues. He also seemed entirely well versed on what was going on domestically, not just in policy terms, but also behind the scenes. In other words he is a political animal. This summer though, after four years there, the family moved back to Dublin.

Following the 2011 general election, with Fine Gael and Labour in coalition, during the dark days of austerity, he was often the public face of the government, as the junior minister for finance (understudy to Michael Noonan). That was an utterly unenviable task, but one that Brian didn’t just do well but with gusto.

In fact he did it so well I couldn’t understand at the time how the party, and then taoiseach Enda Kenny, felt he would be better off in the European Parliament than at home doing a fine job of making the government look good, despite the slashing and burning that was ongoing.

Who knows, maybe there was a vital lesson in that for Brian. He had backed the wrong horse when it came to the Fine Gael 2010 leadership heave and was one of those pointedly made to suffer by Enda Kenny by never being put in a senior ministry. It’s interesting to speculate why, for instance, Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney were not punished to the same extent as Brian. If Enda ever writes a book us political anoraks may just find out the answer to that question.

Actually Enda is a good pointer as to the great surprise surrounding Brian’s announcement that he is leaving politics altogether. After all, as I understand it, Enda is apparently still not recovered from being replaced over a year ago as taoiseach by Leo Varadkar.

If that’s true, and my source is a reliable one, it’s a pity to think of a man who gave his country some great service continuing to feel bitter about being ousted. His time had come, but he did not wish to accept that fact. That is the attitude we are more familiar with from politicians though, and not the one of Brian Hayes, or indeed former minister Ivan Yates, before him.

But what is common to both of those was the idea that there was still potential there, still a chance to rise further through the ranks. If Brian Hayes had a euro for every time a journalist asked him over the past few years if he was going to return to domestic politics he’d probably be able to retire right now. He was seen as someone whose career definitely had more potential but now he has decided to fulfil his potential as chief executive of the Irish Banking and Payments Federation. He’s had enough of politics.

It can bore the pants off many but for a considerable number of people politics is an addiction, even for those of us who merely observe it. To put yourself forward for a general election in the first place usually means there is a healthy ego at play. To actually get elected involves having posters with your face and name stuck all over your constituency, staring down from wooden poles, and you telling people repeatedly how fabulously suitable you are to be their public representative.

If successful you become a TD, you get to hang around in Leinster House (as a country TD you also get to hang around in Dublin and leave your family behind for three days a week) and if your party is in Government there is always the prospect of a bigger job. Add in the constant insecurity of an election being suddenly called and the voters deciding that they don’t like you the way they thought they did. It’s rather a heady mix.

It’s not for everyone, but a very high number of those who opt for it and are elected, can become quite addicted to it. But no more than the changes elsewhere in the workforce, where fewer and fewer jobs are seen as being for life, we will likely see more politicians taking a similar path to that of Brian Hayes.

The average salary of a TD is €93,600 and that of an MEP over €100,000, neither sum to be sneezed at, not to mention the generous expenses. But a politician of, for instances, Brian Hayes’ experience and profile, might stand to earn considerably more in the private sector. It’s also the idea for a TD that unless you get promoted to a ministerial position there is no career path as such, and a person elected the first time around will get the same basic salary as you even if you’re in Leinster House 20 years.

But even getting people interested in a political career is proving harder than it used to be. Speaking to a senior party source about Hayes’ decision to turn his back on politics it was interesting to hear how, having identified really good candidates for next year’s local elections, it is proving exceptionally difficult to get them to stand because they see the abuse politicians get on social media and feel that a political career just isn’t worth that.

It would have been a huge surprise if Brian Hayes had not been re-elected as an MEP next year, should he have chosen to stand. But there are no guarantees in politics. He is one of the few to decide to leave politics before it possibly left him.


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