ALISON O'CONNOR: More inspirational TDs please as 32nd Dáil looms on the horizon

We need more of the big thinkers and those who are ambitious for us as a society, and not afraid to float ideasm, writes Alison O’Connor 

About a year after the last general election I was chatting to a TD of long standing. We were discussing the incredible number of new deputies that had been elected in 2011.

A record number took their seats in the 31st Dáil with a new face in almost every constituency, in all 76 new deputies. “If someone came in off the street during the Order of Business and sat beside me I would be none the wiser. I don’t recognise half of them yet,” said the veteran TD.

Well over four years has passed now, and we are on the last lap, and I have to confess that I still look at the Dáil when it is in session and find myself wondering who a particular TD is, or what constituency he represents. Even us political nerds have our limits, and if these guys have spent the past four years or so saying nothing of much importance, what reason is there to remember them?

I’m not talking about impressive performances, for instance Micheál Martin on the attack, or ruthlessness, like Enda Kenny on Fennelly, or old masters, such as Michael Noonan on the economy, or grace under fire, which Joan Burton showed at that protest in Tallaght. I’m looking for a little bit of everyday inspiration.

I’m hoping that the next Dáil brings us a higher percentage of inspirational TDs, the kind who stand out from the crowd, who become champions of particular issues, and show political courage when it is needed. Without doubt the vast majority of our politicians are doing exactly what their constituents elected them for – looking after the potholes and streetlights, and raising the issue of the lack of resources for their local school in the Dáil – but we also need more of the big thinkers and those who are ambitious for us as a society, and not afraid to float ideas.

That is not to say that the current crop of TDs do not have some gems among them, and to my mind the cream of the crop is independent TD Catherine Murphy.

Now there is a deputy full of determination, guts and courage. She has been unflinching in her approach to the Denis O’Brien controversy and raised issues of national importance that had been sitting like elephants in our national sitting room, with others too afraid to name them for what they were.

I also think of Clare Daly who has done so much of the running, along with Mick Wallace, on Garda corruption. She refused to be cowed, even after she was arrested by the Gardaí and breathalysed and that information was leaked to the media. If ever there was a warning shot – look what we can do to you if you don’t keep quiet – then this was it. But she motored on.

She has also taken a strong stand on abortion. This is a woman who will speak her mind and speak up for her principles. I don’t always agree with her – for instance I’m not sure about herself and Mick Wallace scaling the perimeter fence at Shannon Airport in order to attempt to carry out a search of US military planes which had landed there. However it shows they’ve got grit and determination.

It’s not so straightforward to be a fan of Mick Wallace. The inner conflict stems from his role in under declaring €1.4 million of VAT in his construction company. If that was not enough he shows minimal levels of common sense by doing things like heading off to Poland for the European soccer finals in the midst of all his financial furore. But then you also look at what he appears to have unearthed, most recently with NAMA’s Northern Ireland loan book, and you conclude that with Mick maybe you have to take some of the rough with the smooth.

Perhaps I’m showing a not-so-unconscious bias that it is another female that is next up on my list. She is Mary Lou McDonald, deputy leader of Sinn Féin. Sadly though, my admiration would have been far higher at the beginning of this Dáil term than as it nears its end. It took a serious dent since her seemingly inexplicable decisions to stand by party leader Gerry Adams on a number of issues, not least that of sex abuse allegations concerning the IRA. It’s difficult to know how she will ever come back from that. It is a sign of her very obvious talent, charisma and enormous capability that she still makes the cut. It makes me sad, though, to think of the compromises she has decided to make.

I like how Stephen Donnelly, now of the Social Democrats, has managed to carve out a space for himself since he was first elected in 2011. His new colleague, former Labour deputy, Roisín Shortall showed her mettle when she resigned as a junior minister in the Department of Health in 2012.

As a backbench TD, affiliated to a political party, would be very quick to tell you, it is a far easier thing to stand out from the crowd as an independent, but not so easy when you are subject to the discipline of the party whip. This is true. But those independent deputies previously mentioned do not have a big party machine with all the attendant resources at their disposal. It is a sign of their talent and doggedness that they have still managed to stand out. Catherine Murphy is a perfect example of managing to find a good team of people to surround her and use her resources very smartly.

No list of TDs who made an impression in this Dáil would be complete without mention of Anti Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy. Without doubt this is a man of talent and commitment, the pity is that much of it is misplaced, such as his involvement in the trapping and horrible intimidation of Tánaiste Joan Burton in her car at that protest in Tallaght last year. The Dublin South West TD clearly inspires many people, the pity is that he is not possessed of better judgement, or of finding a politics that is not exclusively fuelled by anger and bitterness.

Elsewhere former Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore deserves credit for pushing through the magnificent same sex marriage referendum, as does Lucinda Creighton for having the courage to establish a new political party. Back on the referendum it was certainly a memorable and inspiring moment to hear Leo Varadkar tell Miriam O’Callaghan on the radio that he was gay. But how inspirational he has been in his ministerial job remains to be seen. We’ll see for instance if he manages to bring in the public health alcohol bill. I’d be inspired by that.

At this moment in time though my sights are set on one man who has shown that you can stand on principle and show political courage even while inside the tent. That TD is Labour’s Aodhán Ó Riordáin, appointed over a year ago as a junior minister with a very unwieldy title, but who essentially looks after the drugs issues as well as equality, and new communities. He hasn’t been afraid to suggest that we should open injection centres for drug addicts, or to make an honest effort in tackling the appalling system that is direct provision. It’s not like he is in a “safe” constituency either, and faces an uphill battle to get re-elected. But he has stood up to the plate. I’d like some more of those next time around please.

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