Coronavirus restrictions have dramatically underlined how citizens demand higher standards from politicians.
From the slew of resignations and demotions following that night in Clifden to the apologies from county councillors for holidaying abroad, events of the past few months show how the public expect those in elected office to lead by example.
And that’s why further reports this week of junior political staff suffering bullying and harassment at the hands of the politicians they work for will cause particular unease around Leinster House.
According to research by NUI Galway this year, one in ten employees in Ireland have experienced workplace bullying. However, the issue appears even more prevalent in Leinster House.
A survey commissioned by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission last year, with 514 respondents, found how 1 in 7 Leinster House staff had experienced workplace bullying.
Experts in NUI Galway also concluded that Ireland loses €239m every year to workplace bullying, with 1.7m work days lost annually.
With this in mind, and as claims of bullying against Oireachtas members continue to surface, questions must be raised as to the extent to which workplace bullying is harming the efficacy of our legislature.
Bullying of staff by TDs and Senators
“They have this public persona; they’re often loved by voters and constituents. But behind closed doors, the real person comes out. If he was under pressure, or had a bad media interview, this explosion would happen in the office. Screaming and shouting abuse”
Over a dozen current and former parliamentary and secretarial assistants outlined to RTÉ this past week how they say they were bullied on the job, with some employees saying they were left with serious mental health issues after their experience.
The allegations were made against TDs and Senators from across the political spectrum, including well-known names, office-holders and Independents of varying backgrounds.
Parliamentary and secretarial assistants are paid by the Houses of the Oireachtas but, under their contracts of employment, are directly employed by their politician. Unlike some other workplaces, many work in small offices with just their employer – the TD or Senator – for most of the day and often for long hours.
The starting salary for a secretarial assistant is around €23,000, something that the trade union SIPTU says helps cultivate an atmosphere for bullying and harassment. While 1 in 7 TDs hire family members or spouses to fill these roles, a significant cohort are young college graduates with aspirations of a career in politics.
Speaking to RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne, one worker described how she “was afraid to be in the office” with her TD as he often “screamed and shouted abuse”.
She said she “was suicidal, went to counselling, ended up on anti-depressants” and would “wish the bus could crash and nobody get hurt just so I couldn’t face him”.
Other workers listed regular tantrums and shouting at staff, emotional abuse on a daily basis, the tracking of their movements in Leinster House and regularly being left in tears a couple of times a day.
“It’s like domestic violence in the past. The partitions are light between the offices in Leinster House so people hear; people are privy to what happens, but they don’t object,” said a former parliamentary assistant.
Both male and female staff members also cited instances of sexual harassment.
Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin believes a “deep cultural change” is needed in Leinster House.
Catherine Martin says there should be a zero-tolerance approach to bullying
“It’s unacceptable behaviour to be honest – there should be a zero-tolerance approach to bullying or harassment in Leinster House,” the minister said.
“It’s no different to any other workplace, it should perhaps lead by example and we should lead to ensure everyone feels safe there.”
Minister Martin is also Chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus in Leinster House and she confirmed the caucus will consider the bullying of political staff by Oireachtas members at its next meeting.
The Green Party deputy leader also insists both the Dáil and Seanad should hear statements on the matter.
“The caucus is meeting for the first time this month in this Dáil term and we will be leading on this. We do statements in the Dáil on a lot of issues and I believe we should be doing statements on this in both houses. We need to shine a light on this,” she said.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne, Minister Martin also confirmed the Women’s Caucus would seek a review on the efficacy of the Oireachtas’ Dignity and Respect Policy, as well as a further workplace survey of all Leinster House employees.
When asked what he would say to the alleged perpetrators of bullying in Leinster House, the Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl responded: “Stop. Stop now. Examine what you’re doing. Examine your day to day practice and engagement with the people that work with you and under you”.
“Staff were regularly bawling in the hallway or in offices and their only form of support is other staff members”
Workers also claim complaints of bullying or harassment against politicians are not followed up adequately within Leinster House or political parties.
Some are reluctant to make an official complaint, with Mr Ó Fearghaíl admitting the Oireachtas “can and will do better” in tackling workplace bullying of political staff.
Nearly all of the current and former parliamentary and secretarial assistants who spoke to RTÉ said they felt as if they had nowhere to go when experiencing bullying or harassment in the Oireachtas.
Some brought their concerns to Oireachtas HR, but claimed that as parliamentary and secretarial assistants are directly employed by their TD or Senator there was little officials could do. Others brought concerns to their respective political parties, but also found it fruitless.
In last year’s workplace survey in the Oireachtas, over three quarters of those who had been bullied did not formally report the matter.
“If you make a formal complaint against your TD, you’re then sitting on your own with that TD in the office, as if things weren’t awkward enough.
“And besides, it’s your word against theirs and they have all the power. Then you’re protective of your TD – it’s like Stockholm syndrome,” said one employee.
“He would suggest things you wouldn’t be comfortable with. If I take the issue further, where does it end? The TD won’t get sacked.
“These people think they’re infallible and know they can’t be touched. You can contact the party HR structure, but if the behaviour continues what happens? Go to the gardaí?
“Yes, but then you’re blacklisted forever. It’s going to be in papers. So why would I go?”, explained one political staff member.
Seán Ó Fearghaíl believes there are robust procedures in place to deal with workplace bullying
Staff who encountered difficulties with Independent TDs and Senators said they felt particularly isolated, with no party colleagues to confide in.
Both Ó Fearghaíl and Cathoirleach of the Seanad Mark Daly believe there are robust procedures in place to deal with workplace bullying through the Oireachtas’ Dignity and Respect Policy.
However, a spokesperson for Leinster House confirmed just ten calls have been made to a dedicated helpline for Oireachtas staff with welfare concerns since its inception in March of last year.
“Am I satisfied with that many calls – no I’m not,” said the Ceann Comhairle.
“One could argue the low uptake indicates the low incidence of the problem, but I’m not naive enough to believe that is the case.”
“We have put systems in place, we need now to communicate to all our staff and all the people who work here that those supports are in place,” acknowledged Mr Ó Fearghaíl, who also heads up the governing body of Leinster House, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission.
Minister Martin said she fears political staff are not reporting instances of sexual harassment by TDs or Senators.
Just 3% of staff in last year’s workplace survey were victims of sexual harassment; but more reported witnessing it. A similar survey in the UK found how sexual harassment of staff by MPs was endemic in Westminster.
“Unfortunately, people are afraid of reporting it. My fear is that it’s there and the numbers in the survey maybe did not reflect that. Around 1 in 5 political staff in the UK reported sexual harassment. If we discuss this in the Dáil and Seanad it may lead to a more supportive environment for reporting this,’ said Minister Martin.
Figures provided to Fianna Fáil Minister of State Robert Troy show how just six TDs or Senators attended training on the Oireachtas’ new Dignity and Respect Policy when provided in September, with 11 political staff also attending. Leinster House insists further training will be provided over the coming weeks.
“Can we do better? Yes we will and we are determined to make this an excellent place to work and for the Oireachtas to be a shining example to other employers in the country,” added the Ceann Comhairle.
RTÉ posed a number of questions to all political parties in relation to their response to allegations of bullying against TDs or Senators by their parliamentary or secretarial assistants.
All parties insist they are supportive of the Oireachtas Official Dignity and Respect Policy and in most cases, also pointed to their own internal procedures.
Labour, People Before Profit and the Social Democrats say they have not received an official complaint against any of their Oireachtas members since the inception of the 32nd Dáil in 2016.
Sinn Féin confirmed it dealt with one official complaint from political staff through Oireachtas channels in that time.
Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party declined to provide details on the number of complaints they dealt with.
Fianna Fáil said it has adopted the official Houses of the Oireachtas policy in relation to employment-related matters in Leinster House.
It also provides a confidential Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) to all party employees, which is also available to employees of parliamentary party members. This EAP is available 24 hours a day to those that may require support on occasion in relation to both workplace and personal matters.
Fine Gael said it has a comprehensive disciplinary and complaints procedure for dealing with any complaints against party members.
It also says it has clear grievance procedures in place to protect both its direct employees and those working for Fine Gael Oireachtas members.
A party spokesperson confirmed each Fine Gael TD and Senator is required to sign a dignity and respect policy acknowledgement.
Sinn Féin insisted it has robust measures in place to deal with any allegations made against party members.
The party says it adheres to the Houses of the Oireachtas Dignity and Respect Policy and is satisfied it deals with complaints adequately.
The party confirmed one of its Oireachtas members was involved in a case at the Workplace Relations Commission since 2016.
The Green Party
The Green Party says TDs and Senators sign an Oireachtas Dignity and Respect Policy and have also been asked to complete dignity and respect training.
The party has a dedicated complaints recipient in the Oireachtas. Any employee can seek mediation if appropriate, via the HR department in the Oireachtas, or failing that via the general secretary of the party.
On the issue of sexual harassment by or against party members, the Green Party says it takes any allegation of harassment extremely seriously and encourages current or former members to report any such incidents via the appropriate channels. It insists every complaint is followed up on.
The party’s rules and procedures provide a clear process for members to raise concerns and complaints directly to the general secretary or the national coordinator.
Minister Martin also said she would raise concerns around the pay for secretarial assistants with her Cabinet Colleague Michael McGrath, the Minister for Public Expenditure. She said the wage should be brought in line with the minimum living wage.
The Labour Party, and all members of the parliamentary Party, have signed up to the Oireachtas Dignity and Respect Statement on Policy and Principles.
A party spokesman also pointed to an internal complaints process, which is available to members.
Any member of the Labour Party may make a complaint in relation to another party member to the general secretary who will follow the steps as outlined in internal process. However, allegations of criminal or other unlawful behaviour are referred by the general secretary to the Garda Síochána.
The Social Democrats say staff are covered by Oireachtas policies in relation to bullying and harassment, as well as general employment protections.
The party also has an internal code of conduct and complaints procedures, which includes complaints about bullying and harassment.
This includes the party having the option of going to an independent third party to investigate any complaints.
People Before Profit
People Before Profit has an internal complaints policy to deal with bullying complaints. This procedure is available for all PBP staff and members.
It has also signed up to the Dáil dignity and respect policy for all staff working in Leinster House.
“We do believe that the pay scale of secretarial assistant needs to be looked at, in particular the starting point of the scale,” said a party spokesman.
As claims of bullying against Oireachtas members continue to surface, questions must be raised as to the extent to which workplace bullying is harming the efficacy of our legislature.
Coronavirus restrictions have dramatically underlined how citizens demand higher standards from politicians.