Big smiles, cute pups: Meet Ireland’s Insta-politicians

Instagram helps politicians present a more rounded image. How are they getting on?

Instagram is now the platform of choice for politicians who want to present voters with a more rounded image of themselves, knocking Twitter out of its spot as the dominant online medium for political communication.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to the United States House of Representatives, has gained thousands of followers who would not typically be politically engaged by using Instagram. Her updates mix the political with the personal, with detailed explainers of her skincare regime, or discussions about policy issues while she makes dinner.

So how are Irish politicians faring with the picture-led social-media platform?

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A year ago I was waitressing in a restaurant while organizing my community. In a time and place where we had been burned by so many politicians, and had grown deservedly cynical of the sad, familiar cycle of campaign promises and governance excuses, I was asking them, just once, to believe. . It was really hard, because how do you make that case? How to ask someone whose trust has been violated over and over to believe you? To believe in the movement for justice and economic dignity? . You show up. You give unconditionally. You show up when no one is looking and the cameras are off. You offer support when it’s risky, but necessary. You do it over and over again, without a need for recognition or expectation that you are “owed” something for doing the right thing. You just... engage in the act of loving your community. . Never in my wildest dreams did I think that those late nights on the 6 & 7 trains would lead to this. All this attention gives me a lot of anxiety (my staff fought to get me to agree to this cover, as I was arguing against it), and still doesn’t feel quite real, which maybe is why I remain comfortable taking risks, which maybe is a good thing. . I believe in an America where all things are possible. Where a basic, dignified life isn’t a dream, but a norm. . That’s why I got up then, and it’s why I get up now. Because my story shouldn’t be a rare one. Because our collective potential as a nation can be unlocked when we’re not so consumed with worry about how we’re going to secure our most basic needs, like a doctor’s visit or an affordable place to live.

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It doesn't matter if politicians are speaking in print, broadcast or online. We are always getting a carefully curated image or message they wish to portray

Leo Varadkar is well known for his tweets, but in March the Taoiseach ditched his @campaignforleo handle for the more search-friendly @LeoVaradkar to "heighten awareness of his Instagram", according to his spokesman. Varadkar is sharing more updates on the "stories" feature of the Instagram app, which allows users to add several updates a day, often with a focus on lighter content.


Whether it’s showing off home-made scones or a photograph of their dog, other Cabinet Ministers, TDs, Senators and councillors are also following suit.

Eoghan McDermott of the Communications Clinic consultancy says the use of social media, and Instagram in particular, is just another way for politicians to communicate with an audience.

“The politicians who use social media best tailor their message to the platform,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if they are speaking in print, broadcast or online – we are always getting a carefully curated image or message they wish to portray.

"The Taoiseach, Simon Harris, Josepha Madigan and Richard Bruton are using it well. I think Ms Madigan's portfolio [as Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht] lends itself well to good imagery, as she gets nice cultural and heritage photos."

The move to Instagram is a logical one, as it represents a new audience for politicians to reach; it has 1.3 million active users in Ireland, many of them between 18 and 24, and the majority of them women. "Strategists would see that as a huge and important audience," McDermott says. As a photo-led platform, Instagram "gives politicians an opportunity to present themselves as interesting, rounded individuals that have other interests away from just politics".

While political wonks and media commentators may take umbrage with the silly-socks and selfies-with-alpacas approach to social media, McDermott says Irish voters want to be able to relate to their leader on a personal level.

“I don’t think the election will be won based on their Instagram or Twitter; it will be based on how well they are running the country, and the quality of their policies,” he says. But as another channel to communicate to a group of people, why wouldn’t they use it?

It won't replace traditional communication methods, however, and many politicians still rely much more heavily on local media to get their message out. "Take a weekly regional paper like the Dundalk Democrat. Having your photo on the front page in a paper that's on someone's couch for a week with your face on it is a pretty powerful thing," McDermott says.

Craig Dwyer is a fellow at the Social Change Initiative, researching digital and social-media campaigning. He was the social-media director for the Yes Equality campaign leading up to the same-sex marriage referendum, in 2015.

Dwyer says turnout in the referendum for young women aged 18-24 increased by 94 per cent, so it was only natural that any strategist would advise politicians to up their Instagram game, given the profile of users. “I don’t think it’s very easy to be a politician on social media in these times, but for those who fully embrace it, the good outweighs the bad, and it can be a cost- effective way to communicate and convert online audiences to voters,” says Dwyer.

"Over the past few years Fine Gael as a party and their members were most active, whereas Fianna Fáil are lagging a bit. Despite some exceptions, such as Timmy Dooley, Stephen Donnelly and Lisa Chambers on Twitter, the party has a way to go on in order to use social media effectively to reach, inform and engage with current and potential supporters."

With Micheál Martin, the Fianna Fáil leader, repeatedly accusing Varadkar of being obsessed with spin over substance, this may be a conscious strategy.

Although Varadkar may be winning the Twitter game, with about 200,000 followers, Minister for Health Simon Harris comes close behind the Taoiseach on Instagram. The youngest Cabinet Minister and new dad has almost 10,000 followers. He shared a photograph of himself with his wife, Caoimhe, and their newborn baby, Saoirse, on Instagram in January to announce the news.

“Silly socks aside, we still only really see Leo the politician and the polished photocalls on Instagram, whereas with Simon Harris we see the dog lover, the new dad, but also the politician,” says Dwyer.

Fine Gael dominates Instagram among Irish politicians; Fianna Fáil and Independents have been slower off the blocks. The Green Party spokeswoman Carolyn Moore says Facebook and Twitter have been valuable social-media platforms for engaging with their base, but Instagram is something they are beginning to focus on.

“I have been seeing it increasingly used as a channel for activism and political engagement, particularly around core Green issues like climate, plastic pollution and sustainable living,” she says, adding that the party has a strategy to use Instagram during the upcoming local and European election campaigns.

The Labour Party has been using Instagram since 2012, "to give a more informal insight into what the party is up to both inside and outside of Leinster House", according to a spokeswoman. "Many of our TDs, Senators and election candidates are on Instagram, and we encourage our reps to use all social-media platforms that are available to them."

Social media aside, knocking on doors or attending funerals or the village fete still takes precedence for most politicians. “Politicians will not get elected on their social-media performances,” says Dwyer. “They are still elected on pressing the flesh, meeting people on their doorsteps, at events and doing hard work for their community.”


132 posts, 12,100 followers

Known for his love of “straight talking”, the Taoiseach is more active on Twitter but has started to post more on Instagram recently. Expect meetings with various dignitaries, photos from walkabouts, and the occasional #fitspo post.

75 posts, 1,174 followers

The old dog of Instagram could teach some of the Young Turks a thing or two about content and emoji use. The Minister for Communications posts about cooking, pets, hobbies and only the occasional meeting.

37 posts, 1,688 followers

The Sinn Féin leader’s account features political updates alongside whimsical pictures such as her green manicure for her St Patrick’s Day trip to the US. In fact the trip provided much content, such as a green manicure and this photo of her on the New York subway.

194 posts, 9,959 followers

The Minister for Health’s stock rose following his use of Instagram during the Repeal the Eighth campaign last year. Expect selfies, baby photos and political updates.

102 posts, 1,300 followers

The Instagram bio for the Fine Gael TD (below) says he’s “trying his best not to become a stereotypical politician”. He posts pics of constituency work, his pet cat, craft beer and the odd Simpsons meme.

184 posts, 1,089 followers

The art teacher turned Fianna Fáil TD for Cavan-Monaghan has a keen sense of style, and keeps followers up to date with constituency work. Her role as arts and heritage spokeswoman lends itself to some colourful content.

1,596 posts, 1,429 followers

The Minister for Arts is an Instagram buff, posting updates throughout the day showing what she is up to, including the occasional family snap.

@ m_healyraetd
67 posts, 3,679 followers

The Independent TD for Kerry sometimes uses his account to do Q&A sessions with his followers. His feed showcases his impressive flat-cap collection, and everything from book signings to constituency work in Kerry.

457 posts, 1,129 followers

The Fine Gael Senator and spokesman on Brexit is a self-proclaimed “average rugby player” who shares updates on his media appearances, interspersed with family snaps.

387 posts, 1,113 followers

The Green Party leader has an artistic streak, regularly sharing photos of his paintings, and scenery photos from his constituency,Dublin Bay South.

17 posts, 506 followers

The Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin West, the youngest member of the Dáil, may be a latecomer to Instagram, but he regularly shares constituency updates, his love of running, and the dogs he meets while canvassing.

Post and follower statistics taken from Instagram on April 4th