The surprise announcement this week by Roscommon TD and former minister Denis Naughten that he does not intend to contest the next election is an indication that a significant number of serving politicians intend to call it a day when the current Dáil has run its course.
Already a number of Fine Gael TDs, including Joe McHugh from Donegal and Brendan Griffin from Kerry, have made it clear that they will not be running again. The striking thing is that, like Naughten, both of these politicians are still relatively young and would have had reason to hope for cabinet positions if their party were to be in power in the future.
There is widespread speculation that a number of older TDs who have served the 20 years in the Dáil that will qualify them for a full pension intend to exit politics at the next election but the more worrying trend is that younger, ambitious TDs have decided to opt out of politics.
There are a variety of reasons why TDs are heading for the exit door but the increasingly toxic nature of public discourse is certainly one of them. There is a widespread feeling in Leinster House that the nastiness fanned by social media that has permeated politics over the past decade has made public life intolerable as a long-term career.
While thwarted ambition has certainly played a role in prompting some TDs to consider their futures, it is not the principal reason in most cases. Some of those contemplating throwing in the towel say they have come to the conclusion that the time-consuming strains the job puts on family life, when taken in tandem with the vicious nature of current debate, have made public life a toxic place.
There is also a financial incentive for TDs, particularly those who have been in the Dáil for 20 years or more, to quit at this stage, whether or not they have ambitions to pursue another career. Those elected before 2004 are entitled to retire at 50 with a lump-sum payment of about €150,000, a series of termination payments and a pension of €50,000 a year. Those first elected after April 1st, 2004, are only entitled to those benefits when they reach the age of 65.
It would be a mistake, though, to think that the financial benefits available to those with full entitlements are the primary motive in most cases. Some TDs with more than enough service to qualify for maximum benefits are adamant that they will run again, come hell or high water, while others who won’t qualify for a long time after they quit are seriously thinking of getting out.
One way or another it appears certain that a raft of current politicians will announce their decision to retire before the end of the current Dáil rather than go through the stress of fighting another election campaign and spending the considerable sum of their own money that would inevitably entail.
The focus of attention up to now has been on the Fine Gael TDs who may not be running again but, as the Denis Naughten case shows, the number of those contemplating their future in politics may be much wider. Nonetheless the clear trend is that the majority of those leaving politics will be from Fine Gael.
The party that will be least affected by the trend is Sinn Féin, with the majority of the party’s TDs elected too recently to have any financial incentive to quit at this stage, never mind the fact that, given their standing in the polls, there seems little prospect of them losing their seats. With the government parties already up against it, the loss of a significant number of serving TDs will make the next election an even greater challenge.
The party facing the biggest challenge will almost certainly be Fine Gael but the scale of that problem will depend on how the party prepares to deal with the inevitable exit of serving TDs. It could prompt a spiral of defeatism in the run-up to the next election with disastrous consequences for the party. In politics, though, the expected rarely happens and the departure of long-serving TDs will create an opening for younger people in the party to step forward and seize their opportunity.
One of the big themes of the next election will be Sinn Féin’s presentation of itself as the party of change, so the emergence of new, young Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil candidates might actually be a positive development. In the dismal general election of February 2020, when Fine Gael did far worse than expected, among the few bright spots were the emergence of first time TDs such as Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and Neale Richmond. Both made a strong impression in their first Dáil term and have been promoted to the junior ministerial ranks.
The local elections due next May will give all the parties the opportunity to unearth new candidates with the most successful ones running in the next general election. An infusion of new blood could be just what the Coalition parties need for the fight ahead.