Irish political parties have a serious problem with accountability

With Dignity and Respect policies often falling short, many political parties foster a culture of hostility and secrecy. This needs to change

If the last general election signified anything, it was that the political landscape of Ireland is in a huge state of flux. Sinn Féin, the Green Party and the Social Democrats enjoyed new-found success, while Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil found their position as the dominant parties to be increasingly unstable. With these parties gaining increased prominence, political parties must be conscious of the environment they foster if they want to garner support in the future. Unfortunately, there is a persistent culture of bullying within many political parties, which is an issue spanning from big names in the Oireachtas to local youth wings.

“One survey found that one in seven Leinster House staff have experienced workplace bullying from TDs.”

 In 2019, a helpline was installed to allow staff within the Oireachtas to report instances of bullying and harassment. In 2020, ten calls were made, describing verbal abuse and intimidation from TDs and Senators, which most likely grossly underrepresents the true extent of bullying within the Oireachtas. One survey found that one in seven Leinster House staff have experienced workplace bullying from TDs. 

All of these instances come from the Oireachtas alone, who have implemented a so-called “Dignity and Respect” initiative to protect staff and politicians from harassment. Each political party or independent politician within the legislature is required to have a Complaint Recipient, approved to deal with such conflicts. One would expect such programmes to create a cooperative, open environment where anyone feels safe to speak up against unjust behaviour. The previously mentioned reports show the opposite is the case. When it comes to tackling workplace bullying, the Oireachtas should lead by example, yet the current policy is merely words on paper that rarely translate into action.

Grievances and misconduct within parties should be dealt with by external, objective bodies. The Dignity and Respect policy might install Complaint Recipients for parties and politicians, but it still allows a large amount of complaints to be handled on an internal, informal level. This means the statistics we see on harassment within political parties is in no way exhaustive or accurate. It means parties have undue power to decide on how to deal with these complaints, if they deal with them at all.

“If it is in their interest to ignore and quash complaints and accusations, there is no one stopping political parties from failing to address complaints altogether.”

If it is in their interest to ignore and quash complaints and accusations, there is no one stopping political parties from failing to address complaints altogether. Nowhere is the gross lack of accountability seen more strongly than in the youth wings of political parties. Niko Kawonczyk witnessed this negligence first-hand last year from Ógra Fianna Fáil, when he discovered several members had taken to ranking female politicians based on physical appearance over Zoom. According to the former secretary of Ógra Fianna Fáil in Monaghan, offensive misconduct like this dominates political youth wings online. Despite his repeated attempts, HQ failed to deal with allegations, delaying any investigation to the point where Kawonczyk felt he had no choice but to resign. When sexist bullies win against those pursuing accountability, political parties cannot be said to be functioning properly.

This problem is not confined to Fianna Fáil­­; your economic ideology and political preferences will not protect you from harassment. Such was the case for Christine O’Mahony, former chairperson of UCD’s branch of Ógra Shinn Féin. After deigning to criticise a fellow party member on Twitter for a homophobic comment, O’Mahony received an onslaught of hate from her fellow “comrades”, as she described, with one senior politician even going so far as to arrive at her doorstep and tell her to delete her tweets. After leaving Sinn Féin, the spate of online abuse continued; O’Mahony was branded an “attention-seeker” for daring to stick with her principles. 

“Parties who use the rhetoric of equality and justice to promote their organisation should practice what they preach, rather than dismiss the suffering of its own members.”

When O’Mahony criticised Sinn Féin online, she allegedly received messages from other party members stating that party matters should be kept “internal” due to adherence to “democratic centralism”. This can be described as a principle which wishes to present the organisation as a single, politically-stable entity. However, this kind of policy is completely antithetical to free discussion, collaboration and accountability. Furthermore, parties who use the rhetoric of equality and justice to promote their organisation should practice what they preach, rather than dismiss the suffering of its own members. Hostility is not a hospitable environment for any bright minds interested in policy and discussion. Rather, it dissuades people from contributing to political discourse and activism. A culture of intimidation and coverup does nothing to accommodate progress in an ever-changing Ireland; will young women aspiring towards a career in politics feel welcome in an atmosphere that does not protect them, but rather ridicules and silences them?

The current “Dignity and Respect” policy fails to uphold its principles and prevent bullying within political parties, and even if it was adequate, it is merely a process within the Oireachtas. There must be tighter regulations and cohesive policies, an independent body that can inspect the behaviour of party members at local and national levels. Unfortunately, substantial policies and organisations like this do not exist outside Ireland, as most countries deal with the same workplace bullying within government as Ireland does. This means Ireland would not have a framework to base its own policy on, but it also means we have the potential to pave the way and pioneer an honourable, trustworthy culture within government. Specific policies such as a thorough vetting of Oireachtas members and watchdog organisations that can regularly review the behaviour of political parties can make a huge difference for those who feel silenced. Politicians must ensure that members and staff are not being marginalised or disrespected. Political parties are supposed to facilitate shared ideas, common goals and discussion, not entertain hostility and cover ups.

Of course, such policy and such a body could only be developed and approved at the behest of parties and leaders that would prefer to keep their repressive cards close to their chest. However, leaders of political parties should keep in mind that such a policy would not just be for the sake of those who need bolstering after bullying; it is also in their own interest to make a clear show of supporting transparency if they want to be a party that people want to join and vote for in the future, or a party no one wants to be invited to.