Staff left in tears and stressed out after bullying by TDs and senators
Negative experiences: There are claims of a culture of harassment in Leinster House
October 12 2020 02:30 AM
Junior staff have been left on anti-depressants, in therapy and “devastated” by stress after being bullied by senators and TDs in Leinster House.
An investigation by the Irish Independent has found claims of a culture of harassment and abuse in the national parliament.
Six former staff, who all left after the last election, said they had negative experiences while working for politicians which included leaving work in tears, suffering PTSD-like symptoms and being unable to sleep. The claims were made against well-known TDs and senators from a number of parties and groupings.
Former staff said that despite making reports to the Oireachtas HR, there was little that Leinster House could do because parliamentary and secretarial assistants (PAs and SAs) work directly for politicians. Most work in small offices with just them and the politician for most of the day.
PAs and SAs are paid a starting salary of €41,092 and €23,180 respectively. While some politicians hire relatives or spouses for the roles, others hire young graduates who aspire to work in politics.
One woman, who worked for a politician for five years, said she reported the politician to HR and was offered a formal investigation but was too afraid of him to proceed.
“I was too scared. To be honest, I ended up on anti-depressants. I wasn’t sleeping,” she said. “There was a fear that you’d be punished for speaking out, or they’d bully you out.”
She said the politician, like others, would close the door to their office after any negative interviews, interactions or calls from constituents, and take it out on their staff – often through verbal abuse.
“The only way I can describe it was like a cycle of abuse: you could feel the tension building up, and then he’d explode, and then he’d try to be really nice for a couple of weeks afterwards,” she said. She added that her job in Leinster House reminded her of an abusive relationship she was once in.
“It happens behind closed doors, nobody gives a s*** because they think we’re all related to the politicians or earning loads of money.”
The woman broke down in tears when she said that since leaving she has had panic attacks when going for job interviews because she can still hear the voice of the TD in her mind telling her she is useless.
A number of former staff said TDs and senators’ assistants would often be seen crying in bathrooms or in the corridors of Leinster House.
Another woman said she worked with a politician for about a year.
“It was one of the worst years of my life, the worst decision I’ve ever made. I’m still afraid of my politician. It has left me with a scar and deep trauma. I regularly have nightmares.
“It was systematic bullying and included physical intimidation. I would be crying on the street, crying walking home, crying on the Luas,” she said.
She said she and others had availed of therapy provided by the Oireachtas to try to cope with the stress of working for a TD. She also went to HR but said it was “practically toothless” because parliamentary staff work directly for politicians and not for the Oireachtas.
“This person is very high-profile, very successful, has been in Leinster House for a long time. I would liken it to being a victim of domestic violence – the public image and the private one is very different. I wish I could erase this experience from my life.”
Several said the way the TD or senator treated them was dramatically different to their often popular or affable public persona. One woman, who worked for a high-profile politician for more than three years, said the fear of being found out made the abuse from the politician even harsher.
“The reason she came down on me as hard as she did was because she was scared of it getting out there that she treated me like that,” she said.
“A negative portrayal of her was the thing she feared the most.“
The woman said she would get more than 15 calls a day, often starting before she was even up in the morning.
Another woman said staff would often come in to work sick, because they didn’t want their colleague to be left alone with their politician.
A young man who left Leinster House said the turnover of some TDs’ staff was high, but there was always a steady supply of young people who wanted to work in politics. He said many staff endured abuse from left-wing politicians.
“You have political parties who will shout to high heaven about workers’ rights and every different industrial dispute, but when it comes to looking after their own it just doesn’t happen,” he said. “They would speak up about those scenarios if it was a stick to beat the Government with.”
Another said he felt interns worked incredibly long hours, while secretarial assistants were having to work overtime to afford the cost of living in Dublin.
A survey last year found one in seven staff in the Oireachtas had experienced bullying.
A spokesman for the Houses of the Oireachtas said it had a dignity and respect policy, which covered political staff.
“The policy includes a complaints process for members’ staff who wish to raise a concern… which includes mediation and informal and formal complaint processes. Members’ staff who have a concern can contact the Dignity and Respect Helpline provided by the Houses of the Oireachtas Service or their designated Complaint Recipient.”