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If politicians like Varadkar and Ardern are burnt out, it’s a sign of the corrosive nature of politics

Varadkar opened up appalling vista where youngish politicians might actually admit they no longer felt up to the job

There was no mystery in the Opposition’s barking response to Leo Varadkar’s shock resignation last week. He had opened up an appalling vista where youngish politicians might actually admit they no longer felt up to the job and then might even resign. Shocking.

The best they could do at short notice was demand repeatedly that he admit to the thing he had already admitted to hours earlier. Yep, that was unmistakably him, slumped in his seat, undeniably worn down, despondent, defeated, resigned by his own hand. He hadn’t changed his mind. Maybe they mistook him for a mansize piñata that if beaten hard and long enough, might suddenly break open and release a million new houses. It wasn’t smart, productive or even politically cunning.

The absence of conventional courtesies was not just a fearful surrender to what the speakers believed their base expected of them; it was an own goal. What they do unto others, they eventually do unto themselves and all who come after them. They diminish the profession of politics itself. Those in the chamber scrolling through social media would have been well aware of the tidal venom unleashed by the announcement, not to mention the wilful ignorance catching fire around the Constitutional rules of appointing of a successor or the notion that a candidate’s election on a later count meant they were less legitimate than the poll-topper. None saw fit to acknowledge or correct it.

Resignations come in many forms but are rarely about admissions of defeat or burnout, so the ones that fit that description tend to linger in the memory.


Back in 2002, a politician who had served in high ministerial office and failed to meet certain targets tendered this resignation letter:

“ ... I’ve learned what I’m good at and also what I’m less good at ... All this has meant that with some of the recent situations I have been involved in, I have not felt I have been as effective as I should be, or as effective as you need me to be.”

Another who also resigned suddenly said: “I’m leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility. The responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not. I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.”

No prizes for guessing that the writers were women. The first was Estelle Morris, a British secretary of state for education, and the second – tendered 15 months ago – was New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern. Ardern was not obliged to say that she lacked the energy to carry on; she deliberately chose to say it. So did Leo Varadkar.

No politician has escaped contact with the hateful, sometimes dangerous environment around politics

In an era when mental health, work-life balance and the corrosive effect of on- and offline abuse pepper many interviews and discussions, it’s remarkable that so few speakers in the Dáil chamber last week took a moment to reflect on the relentless stresses and brutal provocations inflicted by political life.

The fact that Ardern’s decision was framed by some as weakness was predictable machismo politics. How far our own lot have moved can be gauged from last week’s response.

No politician has escaped contact with the hateful, sometimes dangerous environment around politics. Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns was forced to close a constituency office following Garda advice against holding constituency clinics. She has admitted she wouldn’t have run for election had she known how much abuse went with the job.

Paul Murphy has posted complaints and photographs of protesters gathered outside his home while he was bathing his baby.

Mary Lou McDonald has had to chide swarms of trolls identifying as Sinn Féiners. One of her own TDs Martin Kenny and his family were terrorised by an arson attack on their home and a car crashing through the electronic gates.

Ivana Bacik has spoken of far-right threats and intimidation toward her and party members and called on Government to change the rules around disclosure of candidates’ addresses.

Politicians at all levels told the Taskforce on Safe Participation in Political Life that abuse was seen as “part of the job”. Some have stopped canvassing, almost unheard of in Irish politics. One will no longer use public transport.

Announcing his retirement from politics last week, Fine Gael TD Ciarán Cannon cited a heightened toxicity in politics “that can be deeply damaging to our wellbeing. At times it feels like it’s open season on you and your family ...”

Parties now issue constant reminders to candidates – and new candidates in particular – to ignore social media where possible.

The fact that Simon Harris’s home has been among those targeted by protesters – possibly by people who followed his wife and baby back to the house – has no doubt partly inspired his commitment to conduct matters “with civility, with honesty, with a determination to debate without rancour and personal demonisation”. This as always will be wilfully misinterpreted by some as cosy cronyism. Politicians fearful of appearing too weak or cosy will react accordingly. That was all on evidence last week.

The thoughtful ones observe the polarisation of politics elsewhere, the wilful ignorance, the malice and the threats and recognise the real risk to democracy. Robust, passionate debate is important and necessary. So are good faith, cool heads and collaboration. Without civility, empathy and basic courtesies, how will they meet?