CORK North Central TD Jonathan O’Brien will not be standing in the next general election.
In an exclusive interview with The Echo, he dismissed any rumours of him falling out with Sinn Féin, saying that his decision came down to a need for personal change and his frustrations at the “inhumane” treatment of vulnerable people by the state. City councillor Thomas Gould, who finished second in the recent Cork North-Central by-election, is expected to emerge as the party's new candidate at a selection convention on January 18.
Mr O’Brien is the third TD in the constituency to stand down since the last general election. Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher vacated his seat after he was elected to the European Parliament last year, while Fine Gael’s Dara Murphy departed electoral politics for a role in the European Commission.
Solidarity’s Mick Barry is now the only northside TD elected in 2016 still seeking to defend his seat.
For several years, Mr O'Brien says he has felt helpless, watching his constituents fall victim to the worst failures of the Irish state.
In a 20-year political career he saw the boom skip over the northside of Cork City and then austerity politics tear it apart.
Rather than just the simpler housing or medical card issues of the past, his constituency office is dealing with people on their knees, begging for help at the lowest points of their lives.
And far too often, there was nothing he could do.
“I’m not a social worker. I’m not qualified to be a social worker, and that’s something our body politic needs to look at.
“There is a lot of pain and a lot of misery and a lot of hurt out there at the moment, and the system is so inhumane in how it treats vulnerable people and they come to TDs out of desperation, seeking help, and in many cases there's very little we can do only provide them a listening ear and point them in the right direction.
“In many cases, you’re pointing them in the right direction to queue for 14 months if they want to access acute mental health services.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing people who are trying to access mental health services in this city taking their own lives. That is a damning indictment of any society.
“That is a policy decision of governments over the years who have prioritised private healthcare. They have created a two-tier health system and that has consequences, and, unfortunately, those consequences are manifesting themselves now," he said.
He said that you can only do so much in opposition and spend most of your time watching the establishment spin its heels and plaster over deep wounds in society.
“When people hear the likes of Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin saying ‘We’ve opened up so many new centres, we’ve shortened waiting lists from two years to 18 months’, that means nothing to somebody who is living on the edge. 14 days is too long for them, not to mind 14 months," he said.
That frustration was one of the big reasons in his decision to step back from frontline politics.
“It’s been extremely frustrating, because there’s only so much an opposition TD can do. I wish I was in government. I wish I could implement change, but it’s difficult.
“It’s a difficult job – it’s a very well paid job, and I’m not complaining about that – but it is a very difficult job. I have real people coming in my door. They're not stats or figures on a waiting list when they’re sitting down in front of you..
“In some cases, there’s very little I can do because the system is so screwed up. That’s very frustrating for me. My door is open, you do the best you can for them, but sometimes that’s not enough. That weighs on, not just me, but people in the same position as me.
“It’s all the more reason for people to go out and vote for change. I know that’s clichéd, but many of the people affected by these very issues unfortunately are the very people who have lost faith in the political system and don’t go out and vote,” he said.
It’s not the only reason he’s stepping back, however.
In recent months, he’s started pursuing a law degree, and plans to continue his lifetime activism on social issues in new ways.
Family played a role too. Late last year, he lost his beloved mother, Margaret, after a long battle with illness.
“It wasn’t the defining reason, but it does make you look at life differently. Life is temporary. I just wanted to do something different.
"Politics, I’m doing it 20 years and like anybody doing a job for 20 years you start looking for something different and new challenges and I felt the time was right for me going into the next general election.
“I always said I didn’t want to be doing politics into my 50s and 60s like some career politicians.
“I don’t consider myself a career politician; I’m a career activist,” he said.
He also dismissed any rumours that there was a conflict between himself and other members of Sinn Féin, saying that the strength of the party.
“If there was any issue between me and the party, I would be the first person to say it. I’ve been critical of the party in the past. I say it as I see it, and I think the party is in a strong position under Mary Lou. After the election, I’ll still be a party member. I’ll be an active member of the party until the day I die,” he said.
As well as pursuing his new career, he said he’ll be spending more time with his family and friends and working for Sinn Féin on the ground in Cork.
But moving back from Dublin also has another perk – easy access to his beloved Cork City FC.
“I won’t be racing down from Dublin every Friday night to see a match in Turner’s Cross!” he said.