A dedicated man of real warmth and character
JUNIOR Minister Shane McEntee was out of sorts. One of his constituency rivals in Meath had issued a statement condemning his "callous and crass comments" about cuts to the respite grant for carers.
On the face of it, it sounded bad. It was just days after the Budget reduced the grant from €1,700 to €1,325.
He had been quoted in a Sunday newspaper as saying that "you could stay in a top hotel for €700 a week".
But when he was contacted, Shane was quick to clear up any impression that he was cold and uncaring towards carers.
"I am dealing with people in this situation all the time. We work with people on a weekly basis who get nothing from the State," he said.
He said that he had been trying to point out that it was cheaper to stay in a hotel than it had been during the economic boom, when the respite care grant was lower.
"I was making a point about the cost of getting a break. It's not about the people (the carers)," he said.
Shane went on to talk about how he knew that the respite grant provided relief for carers "and a chance to get away". And he spoke about carers who were under huge pressure due to a lack of family support.
"There are a lot of cases where the families take over and a lot of cases where they don't," he said.
But he was relieved to get his point across – and said that overall, the response to the Budget over the weekend had been okay.
"I haven't had four complaints about the Budget. It's more about abortion," he said.
But his key focus at that stage was on the planning to deal with the ash dieback disease, because it was becoming clear that up to 10pc of the ash trees planted in recent years were potentially infected. He was busy making arrangements with Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, the department officials, and their counterparts in the North, who would be crucial to the success of the plan.
The following day, he was slightly upset that the controversy over his respite carer's grant comments had been picked up on his local radio station. He was still focused on the announcement of the ash dieback control programme – although he said that he could not give any details in advance due to the cross-border sensitivity of the issue.
He promised to ring back the following day to give advance warning of when the announcement was being made – and he did.
That is what has made the news of his tragic death so hard to understand for those who dealt with him in the Dail.
He was proud of the work he was doing as Junior Minister for Food and Forestry – and had been up and down the country attending events, award ceremonies and conferences.
He was often bubbling with enthusiasm, describing how it was possible to make good money in forestry with the current timber prices, and how bright the future was for Irish agriculture.
In his own colourful way, he used to explain how it was exciting to be a farmer again after it was sidelined in the Celtic Tiger era.
"If one's daughter was getting married to a farmer 15 years ago, the question everyone asked was how much road frontage he had. Ten years ago it was different but now they are talking about road frontage again," he said.
And he genuinely was a campaigning TD, one who would grab hold of an issue and refuse to let it go, whether it won him votes or not. As the Fine Gael road safety spokesman, he was under pressure from some rural TDs in the party to oppose the lowering of drink-driving limits.
But even though he was a publican himself, he believed strongly that it was the right thing to do. He told Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny he would resign as road safety spokesman if the party came out against it.
Transport Minister Noel Dempsey did not need the Fine Gael votes in the end – but it did help him at a time when rural Fianna Fail TDs were strongly opposing the bill.
But the best example of his dedication was his relentless pursuit of the pyrite issue. It came to his attention after constituents in Kentstown and Dunshaughlin showed him the damage caused to their homes by it. He often spoke privately of late-night meetings with people who were in mental anguish due to the presence of pyrite in their homes – and how worried he was for them if something was not done to help them.
While in opposition, he held private meeting with builders, insurance companies and banks to try to get repairs on individual houses and estates. United Left Alliance TD Clare Daly – not one to dish out compliments unnecessarily – said he had been the "sole voice" in the Dail on the pyrite issue at the time. And when he got into Government, he kept going.
It was ironic that in the week of his death, the Government agreed to impose a levy on the construction and quarry sector to fund the repairs of houses damaged by pyrite.
He liked to tell the story of how Michael Collins drank in the pub in his home village of Nobber during the War of Independence – which he later bought with his wife. Back then, the pub was under different ownership and the McEntee family had a different revenue stream – smuggling eggs, hens and other produce across the border to the North. They also once smuggled an IRA unit back to the North after a raid on the RIC barracks in Nobber.
He talked recently about how it was taking him longer to drive into the Dail every morning from his home in Meath. But this was not a complaint – he actually saw it as a good thing because it was a sign that the economy was starting to recover with more people travelling to work again.
He would regularly ask people about their families and their children, and it was an inquiry made out of genuine interest because it reflected his love for his own family. He would proudly tell people how long his wife Kathleen was married to him when she accompanied him to the Dail. And he would often tell people to spend as much time as they could with their children because they were the most important thing.
Shane McEntee could often be too blunt in his honesty for his own good. But that was what made him such a refreshing character – if he believed something and felt strongly about it, he would say it.
There was a light-hearted example recently in the Dail of his habit of plain speaking and his willingness to help his colleagues.
He was covering for Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan, who had been asked whether Bank of Ireland would hand over its College Green headquarters to the State. Shane had been given a prepared script by the civil servants about the potential for the wider College Green area to become like world-famous city squares.
He had a long list of squares to read out, including the Place de la Concorde in Paris, the Piazza Navona in Rome, and the Piazza del Campo in Sienna.
Shane paused in the middle and said: " I have never heard of some of these places before" – and then continued on. He also made it clear that he would like to see College Green handed over by Bank of Ireland – another line which was not in the official response.
A man of genuine warmth, commitment and character, he will be sadly missed by his family and those who got to know him in Leinster House.