Friday 30 September 2016

Niamh Horan with the Healy Raes: 'There's no such thing as how much I'm worth. Christ, I'm not Madonna'

They have just topped the poll in The Kingdom and are growing their political empire. Michael and Danny Healy-Rae talk to Niamh Horan about winning votes, shooting guns, and why outsiders just don't 'get it'

Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30

Two seats and a fireside chat: Niamh Horan meets up with Danny, left, and Michael Healy-Rae in Kilgarvan, County Kerry Photo: Don MacMonagle
Two seats and a fireside chat: Niamh Horan meets up with Danny, left, and Michael Healy-Rae in Kilgarvan, County Kerry Photo: Don MacMonagle

Michael Healy-Rae was walking through the Dail corridors late one evening when he once again came upon a Minister who had repeatedly refused to acknowledge him.

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Undeterred, he tipped his flat cap once again: "Hello Minister," he smiled.

The Minister snubbed him.

We're sitting in his office behind his wife's grocery shop in the small village of Kilgarvan, Co Kerry, and the Independent politician is recalling just one of dozens of occasions where people looked down their nose.

On this occasion he turned.

"Christ, what's wrong with you?" he asked the colleague, "Who the hell do you think you are?

"You were elected the same as me and you're a Minister - not God. And you won't say hello to me? Maybe you mightn't be here by the time this government is finished. You might never be here again."

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The Minister smiled back and, without saying a word, walked on.

One year later and the same ­politician is out of power but Michael has become the country's national poll-topper.

With 20,378 first-preference votes - along with his newly ­elected TD brother Danny - the pair rule The Kingdom.

Michael likens the joint effort to a game of "tug-of-war" in "the battle for Kerry": the more men you have, the better.

The country is finally starting to take note - but for years the so-called intelligentsia have ­written them off.

Hillbillies, parish-pump culchies, bogmen - the brothers have heard it all. It failed to deter them.

When I catch up with Michael he has been fielding calls since 6am. He shows me his phone ­register: "See those red lines? Every red one is one that must be rang back," he says in a sing-song accent as rich as Kerrygold.

He makes and receives up to 300 a day.

In one year alone his brother Danny's phone bill came in at €15,300. And that was just for work at Kerry County Council.

Their father - the late TD Jackie - hammered home one basic principle: treat every problem as if it was your own.

"If there was a light gone ­outside their door, well think of it as a light outside your door," says Michael.

Recently, a local elderly man ­wanted a new stove.

Would you help him?

"Oh God, yes. These things are important."

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For the Healy-Raes, neither their fellow politicians nor the Dublin media "get it".

While Enda was listening to well-paid political consultants, the brothers were working on the ground: "Outside in the shop, someone is buying a pound of rashers - talk to them. Out in the yard, meet a farmer filling a drum of diesel for his tractor. Talk to him. Go to the mart, meet a man or a woman [selling cattle] and find out what they have to say. These are all terrible important advisors."

He echoes the recent words of fellow poll-topper Michael Lowry, - "There's no rocket science" - and says he loathes the "big shots" and "arrogant" faction in Dublin who fail to take their efforts seriously.

There is no denying - they are different.

Caricatures of an old rural ­Ireland, they calve cows, ride ­diggers and Michael even holds the record of three-time All-Ireland whistling champion.

His whistling career came to a crushing end when he chipped his front tooth during a game of 'greasy pole' while "batin' a fella" to knock him off balance.

He whistles a sad, empty air to show all that remains of his former glory.

Another thing that sets the brothers apart is their love of guns.

Michael keeps his in a bedroom safe.

He holds the key up under my nose.

"There is only one key and it is with me all the time."

How many guns do you have?

"I have a number of guns," he says matter-of-factly, avoiding the question.

Why more than one?

"Because there are different guns for different things."

Like?

"Ahhh there is a difference between a rifle and a shotgun . . . for different purposes," he smiles.

His brother, Danny, also has a love of weapons.

"I have a few guns alright."

How many?

He laughs, "I'd say three . . . two shotguns and a .22."

Do you keep them in your ­bedroom?

"Oh I have one of them in the bedroom at all times."

Under your bed?

"Near enough to the bed anyway."

Near enough to grab?

"Yeah. That's it."

I mention the scourge of rural crime and ask whether people have a right to protect their home.

"Of course they should. A man's home is their castle," Danny says.

Shortly before the election he woke suddenly to a sound in the middle of the night: "I went to sleep no more. I came down [and] I had a feeling there was someone around. . . "

How did you protect yourself? Was it nice to have the gun?

"Oh 'twas. 'Twas."

The odd pesky animal doesn't escape his crosshairs either.

"I would be shootin' something that would be doin' harm to me," says Danny.

Grass-eating deer are regular targets.

"Yerrah, you'd keep them in check like."

How many a year?

"Yerrah, sometimes you'd kill a couple of them and they'd stay away, the rest of them."

Would they eat that much grass?

"Oh jaypers! If there was 70 or 80 of them they would like. . . "

So how many need to be kept "in check" each year?

He pauses for a moment: "I'd say . . . last year. . . " he looks at me carefully. "Two."

One criticism the brothers face is that they are elected to act in the national interest, but their focus remains local. "You can be bloody well both," asserts Michael.

We meander into international affairs.

Would he have views on Brexit?

He looks at me, wide-eyed.

"Wha'?"

Brexit, I repeat.

Michael turns to photographer for help.

"Brexit," the man urges, "the British exit from the European union."

"Oooooooh sorry . . . I would have. I would have. Very strong views on that."

I'm not entirely convinced.

But his attempt at winging it is commendable.

"There are very serious times here with situations like that. The effect that something like that could have on Ireland."

So how do you think it would affect us? Do you think Britain should stay or go?

He sighs. "You see . . . I would be worried. I would be worried about any change. Because the way we are set up at the moment . . . with Ireland, England and the rest of Europe - it's working. Our trade agreements are working, our ­exports, our imports, it's all ­working. My father always said to me if a thing isn't broken - my father was a mechanic, I love fixing things - my father used to always say a thing is like an engine, if it has a bit of a knock in it . . . but if it's working away right, keep it driving away," he smiles.

At one stage he acknowledges the views of Dublin politicians and press are partly due to the fact that "I don't talk the same way as they talk and because I didn't go to university".

But anyone who considers them fools does so at their peril.

These men are shrewd operators.

Patriarch Jackie Healy-Rae, who passed away last year, was ­consistently among the ­highest-earning of all TDs, ­receiving well in excess of €200,000 in pay and standard expenses - as he served as an Independent TD for South Kerry.

Since he was first elected in 1997, he is estimated to have raked in well in excess of €2m.

During the same period, his sons Michael and Danny both served on Kerry County Council, claiming expenses that made them among the best-paid councillors in the entire State.

In 2008 and 2009, the two men shared a pay and expenses bonanza of €196,000, putting them among the top-earning councillors in the land.

The family business, Healy-Rae Plant Hire, largely run by Danny, has made considerable sums from the public purse - nearly €5.5m in Kerry County Council contracts since 1999.

Both say the value is wildly exaggerated.

The family's considerable wealth also extends to the land and at one point in time Jackie, Michael and Danny were reported to own 17 properties according to records from the Land Registry.

So how much are they worth?

Michael laughs off the question. What he has in assets, he makes up for in debt, he says.

His business and property ­empire just "plods away".

"There's no such thing like 'how much you're worth'. Jesus Christ, I'm not Madonna," he laughs again.

I wonder if the fast-paced talking, their ability to run rings around journalists, and the Kerry cuteness plays in the brothers' favour.

Do people underestimate them?

Michael's response is a long-winded spiel that starts with his Inter Cert and continues with a tale about the Salesian Brothers. Then there's talk of a cow box, his college debating team, how one of the judges on the panel was the former editor of the Irish Farmers Journal until suddenly we are mid-conversation about a tractor that allows him to shift into higher gears and I am sitting there politely nodding, all the while wondering what the hell I just asked.

"I've never met a man who talks so much but answers so little," I say.

His secretary is now in convulsions of laughter, while Michael quietly sits there smiling.

As I leave to have a pint and a chat with Danny in his pub - ­having missed my train - Michael turns to the photographer shaking his head, "Jaysus, she's an awful woman for the talkin'."

To borrow the words of Mickey O'Neil in Guy Ritchie's cult classic Snatch: I should have saved my breath for cooling porridge.

As for the future of the Healy-Rae take-over? I ask Danny if his daughter Maura is next in line to take his seat on the Kerry County Council.

"We haven't decided [yet]," he says, but "it will be one of us."

It will be one of the clan, ­anyways?

"Yea."

"Until we have decided and until the key people around us are informed, no-one else in Dublin or Killarney [will know]."

And that's how politics goes down in Kerry.

Sunday Independent

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