Heartbreaking loss of the decent politician who cared too much
Published 23/12/2012 | 05:00
Nothing was a bother for TD Shane McEntee, until the load became too much to bear, writes Maeve Sheehan
ON Thursday evening, Shane McEntee drove home to Co Meath after a long and fractious day in the Dail. It should have been a happy time: Christmas was days away. The junior minister for agriculture and the noted family man would be spending it at home with his wife, Kathleen, and grown-up children. According to friends, he had not been himself for a while, but there was nothing to even hint at the tragedy that followed. He chatted with his family that evening and rose at around 8am the next day. He sat down to breakfast with Kathleen. The radio was on in the background.
After breakfast, Kathleen went to get ready for the day. Her husband went outside with the dog. When he hadn't returned an hour later, Kathleen went to look for him. She found his body near the boiler house at the back of their home, shortly after 10am.
A simple question haunts most families who have been bereaved by suicide: why? Why did he take his own life?
Mr McEntee was 56, a junior government minister at the top of his game, a national figure who was also rooted in the rural Meath community where he was raised. His children – Aoife, Vincent, Sally and Helen – were grown-up. Helen worked for him in Leinster House. His siblings lived close by. They were a family of high achievers, and he matched their successes. He was a farmer and ran a popular pub and a restaurant, the Dee Bar and Dee Grill, before he became a successful politician.
His close friend, ally and former Fine Gael TD and now councillor, John Farrelly, said: "The man wore his heart on his sleeve. The biggest problem he had was taking everyone's problems on board once they told him. It became his problem then.
"We were discussing how he would step back a little and allow some of these problems to be dealt with by the office rather than getting involved in every single one of them.
"From the day he was elected to Dail Eireann, if someone rang him, it was a personal call to the house. There were no clinics. I couldn't have done it as a TD. But his family was reared and he gave his life 24/7 to this."
Like so many rural politicians, Mr McEntee got into politics through his involvement in the local community. Gaelic football was his passion: he trained at various times the Nobber, Ballinlough, Castletown and Walterstown teams.
He became a TD in 2005 when he won a by-election in Meath, replacing the former Fine Gael leader John Bruton. Mr Bruton recalled this weekend how his election victory marked a "turning point" in Irish politics by greatly strengthening Fine Gael.
"He always gave immense time to listen to people and their problems and to be with them in their times of sorrow," he said.
According to Mr McEntee's friends, the challenges thrown up by politics were not only problems that needed fixing: he insisted on handling them personally. It was not enough to go along to a community meeting and listen to the problem and delegate someone to it. He would take it on board and make it his business to find a solution.
Organisations in his constituency and beyond poured out tributes to him this weekend. One of his constituents was Bernadette Sullivan, who set up a helpline and advocacy group Dignity for Patients. In the early days, in 2009, scores of people jammed the helpline and the phone bill was "colossal" – about €280. She contacted Mr McEntee to ask his advice on where he should go for funding.
"Shane paid the bill," she said.
Mr McEntee took on the cause of a local campaign protesting against pylons that were to be erected across Meath as part of the North-South electricity interconnector. The North East Pylon Pressure Campaign was trying to recover the costs of a planning hearing that had to be aborted because of an error by Eirgrid. Mr McEntee, although he was by then a minister, quietly got stuck in behind the scenes, opening up negotiations with Eirgrid over 18 months that concluded with the local group recovering its money.
The group's chairperson, Aimee Treacy, said Mr McEntee never sought the limelight for any of his achievements.
"Above all, Shane was a gentleman with a gentle soul. He will be sorely missed but fondly remembered," she said.
William Prior set up the Phoenix Project in 2009 to help people in trouble during the recession, people at risk of suicide or of losing their businesses or their homes. Mr McEntee asked to meet him one day to find out what the project was all about. He wanted to be able to offer troubled constituents some practical help.
"He used to often say to me, 'Why do people take their own lives?'" said Mr Prior.
As a national politician for seven years, Mr McEntee was savvy enough to always back the winning team in his party. When the younger members of Fine Gael attempted a coup against Enda Kenny in 2010, he delivered the emotional speech, inspired by Michael Collins, that was credited with swinging the troops behind Mr Kenny.
He suffered the same slings and arrows of politics as any of his colleagues. He took the flak for failures to deliver on pre-election promises such as the stag-hunting ban introduced by the Green Party's environment minister, John Gormley, which Fine Gael promised to reverse. The issue never made it to the Programme for Government.
COLM O'ROURKE SPORT, PAGE 8
According to other friends, various issues – local and national – the everyday stuff of politics, weighed on Mr McEntee's mind in recent weeks and months.
He had worked tirelessly to have homeowners whose properties were affected by pyrite excluded from the property tax. But according to his friends, he didn't get the recognition for the work he had put in.
He was particularly preoccupied lately with ash die-back, a disease in the native tree that has been slowly encroaching on Ireland's forests. According to one friend, he was frustrated at the slow pace of his department in detecting its progress across the country.
Earlier this month, the Budget brought the €325 cut to the €1,700 respite grant for carers. The cut was widely criticised, and Mr McEntee, as with other TDs, came under pressure as a result. He made a comment about how it would cost €700 a week to stay in a top hotel, adding: "People just have to get on with it."
Afterwards, Opposition politicians accused him of being crass, and a wave of online abuse was unleashed. He was savaged on social media. According to friends, he was "desperately" upset by the abuse over the past 10 days.
John Farrelly said: "We didn't talk about it that much other than to say that he said 'this respite thing, they are destroying me'. I said Shane, all of these increases were given during the boom of seven years, everyone wants this problem of Ireland fixed, but don't come to my door to fix it.
"I said Shane, everyone's being asked to pay a little bit. I said that's where we have to get to. His response was, yes, that's the sensible thing, but these people are not being sensible."
In recent days, some of Mr McEntee's office staff tried to wipe the barrage of online abuse off his computer so that he would not see it.
Frank Feighan, his colleague in Fine Gael and a TD for Roscommon, said: "I feel there is a frenzy out there and I feel a lot of it is generated through social media. ... We are politicians. We weren't born as politicians, we were born as humans. We have family. Most of us got involved in politics because we were of the community. Most of us are reluctant politicians.
"I think it is something that we all have to contend with. It is an issue that must stop. I don't mind people having reasoned debate, but this seems to be frenzied and continued and it is causing huge concern, not just for politicians but for their families."
There were other pressures too, such as the Government's decision to legislate for the X Case. Mr McEntee had been lobbied by people on the pro-life side. He told friends he was concerned about this in that some people were not willing to allow the Government to legislate.
According to Mr Farrelly, what upset him most was the death of an elderly man in a traffic accident in Slane the week before last. Mr McEntee was devastated by the man's death.
As a local TD, he had campaigned for years for a bypass, but in March the planning application was rejected, setting the planned road back by a decade.
"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," said Mr Farrelly. "He felt that he had let the people of Slane down because nothing was done. That was the kind of sensitive and caring person he was.
"He was my foot soldier for 25 years. I had the pleasure of returning the compliment in 2005, and I was his director of elections last year. We had some great times. We might argue but then agree to differ and that was the way we got on."
But the last three times they spoke, he said, Mr McEntee was not himself.
He was feeling the pressure of politics but "part of it was the pressure he felt that so many people were under, and he felt he would like to be doing more," said Mr Farrelly. On Wednesday night, Mr McEntee was due to go to a fundraiser at Shelbourne Park greyhound track in Dublin, but he failed to show up.
He spent all day Thursday at the Dail. William Prior was among the scores of people who called his office that day to ask for his help with an application for grant funding. Mr McEntee was as helpful as ever.
"He rang me back. He was very quick on the ball," said Mr Prior. Mr Farrelly rang him several times but, to his amazement, he couldn't reach him. Mr Farrelly's last words with him were when he told him to listen to a radio show with a Sinn Fein councillor. Mr McEntee joked that he'd definitely be tuning in to that.
"He had a thousand friends and any one of them he could have rung anywhere in Ireland," said Mr Farrelly.
If only he had. He will be buried tomorrow in his home town of Nobber, where thousands are expected to pay tribute to an honest politician who cared too much.