James O'Connor: All bets are off as youngest TD looks to future

Having risen quickly through the ranks of Irish politics, James O’Connor is anxious to get back to work, writes political correspondent Paul Hosford
James O'Connor: All bets are off as youngest TD looks to future
It’s been a whirlwind few months for newly-elected Fianna Fáil TD James O’Connor, but he has only been able to take his seat in the chamber once." Picture: David Keane

Having risen quickly through the ranks of Irish politics, James O’Connor is anxious to get back to work, writes political correspondent Paul Hosford

The Dáil’s youngest TD believes that all parties should tear up their manifestos, as the Covid-19 recovery has altered the political landscape.

Fianna Fáil’s James O’Connor was elected in February as a TD for Cork East — pipping his running mate, Kevin O’Keeffe — but has only been able to sit in the Dáil chamber once due to social distancing rules being enforced in the Oireachtas.

The 22-year-old said any recovery from the outbreak which has shuttered a massive part of the economy must be fair to younger generations, adding that it has altered the political landscape entirely.

“All manifesto pledges are gone after this crisis, for everyone,” he said.

“The outbreak is a complete and utter calamity in all sectors of society and the most important outcome of Government formation talks is a stable outcome.

“I’d like to see the smaller parties stepping up to the plate.

“I don’t think they’ve done a great service walking away from us, but I’m hopeful that Labour under Alan Kelly would come back to the table.

“All bets are off, all commitments are gone, there’s no way that any of the parties will be able to deliver what they promised in the election after this crisis — everybody accepts that.

“Every TD who got elected is going to have a good honest look at what their manifestos were and go back to the people that elected them and try and get done what they can.”

Mr O’Connor said he does not believe that a second election would be useful to the country.

The Youghal-based TD, who got his first taste of politics as a Transition Year work experience student in Micheál Martin’s Turners Cross office, says he stands behind his party leader in forming a coalition with Fine Gael.

“I’ve worked closely with Micheál, and he’s been very good to me.

“Often it takes time to see results. He’s been steadfast in his leadership and is very good to new TDs — he’s excellent to anyone who wants to call him.

“It was a disappointing general election for himself and us, but to be fair to him, he’s gone on and done the work.

“He has the capacity to become an outstanding Taoiseach if that opportunity should arise. He has my full support.”

On the campaign trail with Mícheál Martin in February
On the campaign trail with Mícheál Martin in February

Mr O’Connor says his last 12 months, from studying a Business, Economics and Social Studies degree at Trinity College Dublin, to being elected a councillor for Midleton last summer, to upsetting the odds to gain a Dáil seat, have been a “whirlwind” that have seen his priorities shift dramatically due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

He says he will now focus on the recovery from the sudden, severe contraction to the economy, working to ensure that towns and younger people are protected.

“If you’d asked me when I was elected what my priorities were in the Dáil, it would have been entirely different — but now my entire focus is going to be on how we support towns, which are going to be vital to the recovery, particularly in constituencies like Cork East,” he said.

“It’s vital that TDs like myself ensure we don’t have another spell of austerity.

“There has to be a balance in the recovery.

“There’s a lot of young people who just want a crack of the whip.

“But it would be very premature of me to be promising massive capital projects, because we don’t know what the impact of Covid-19 will be.”

While he admits that he was something of a long shot to be elected, his first stint as a TD has been somewhat unusual. He seconded the motion to elect party leader Micheál Martin as Taoiseach on February 20, giving his maiden speech in the chamber less than two weeks after his election.

But in the two months that have followed, he has been unable to return to Leinster House due to a reduced capacity in the Dáil in accordance with social distancing guidelines.

That has left Mr O’Connor somewhat frustrated, as he feels that he and his colleagues should be working.

“If we’re expecting medical professionals to go to work, it’s not good enough that politicians — who are exceptionally well paid — aren’t going up to work.

“It’s important that democracy continues, irrespective of anything else that’s going on.

“There are ways to ensure that the government is being held to account, without putting anyone’s health at risk.

“I know the Houses of Oireachtas are doing phenomenal work to make sure people are safe.”

He said he has been able to work from home, spending many hours assisting people who needed to be repatriated as lockdowns came into effect across the world.

“It’s certainly not the work you’d have expected to do in the first couple of weeks, but I’ve put my heart and soul into it,” he said.

“On the other hand, it can be difficult to be the bearer of bad news for people who may not be entitled to something like the Covid payment.

“The hardest part is that you’re not operating in one location, but that’s the same for everyone who’s working from home.

“But in a rural constituency, you have to put in the work for people to take you seriously.”

Mr O’Connor said he also took issue with the idea that Dublin’s Convention Centre would be used for any vote on Taoiseach that might take place in the coming weeks.

“Using the Convention Centre is one I have a bit of a problem with.

“I don’t understand why it would be used at such a huge cost to the taxpayer. Dublin Castle is owned by the State and has ample space.”

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