When Angela Kerins became chief executive of Rehab in 2006 at the age of 47, conspirators in Fianna Fail muttered about her being a decoy to deflect attention from the heavy Fine Gael presence at the top of the disability charity.
If the Central Remedial Clinic was perceived as a north Dublin Fianna Fail gig, then Rehab was its south side Fine Gael counterpart.
Frank Flannery, a longstanding Fine Gael strategist, had been its chief executive for 25 years. The late Enda Marron, a trustee of Fine Gael, the late Colm Allen, a barrister and party fund-raiser, and John Hussey, a brother-in-law of the Fine Gael minister Gemma Hussey, were on the board.
Angela Kerins was Fianna Fail. And not just common or garden Fianna Fail either. She ran for the party's national executive. She went to the annual Ard Fheiseanna. She chaired the Women's Political Association and pushed for the promotion of Fianna Fail women. She was so assertive politically that people assumed that she would want to run for the party but she never did.
"We always reckoned Frank Flannery had her in there as a decoy," a Fianna Fail activist told the Sunday Independent.
"Bertie Ahern was still Taoiseach and the blueshirts thought it prudent to have a Fianna Fail sympathiser at the helm."
Angela Kerins was too forthright to be anyone's political foil.
Last week, the belated lust of the political establishment for transparency in the charity sector shifted to Rehab – a not-for-profit entity combining a commercial enterprise and some State-funded services. Kerins, its high-profile, perfectly coiffed chief executive, was once again under the spotlight for her vast salary.
She was rumoured to be the highest-earning charity chief in the land on a salary of in excess of €400,000. Rehab said her salary was €234,000. Kerins herself has steadfastly refused to elaborate. Even the Taoiseach Enda Kenny – who has shared many a photocall with his former political adviser's protege – last week urged her to "end the nauseating spectacle" and 'fess up.
But Angela Kerins is "one tough lady", according to a man who sat across a boardroom table from her. And there have been many boards.
She is the classic Irish quango queen whose soft charity face conceals a steely corporate core. She is a networker who straddles party political lines and social cliques. One society person found it telling that she likes her steaks rare, the juicier the better.
Her background is middle-class rural Ireland. When Kerins was being conferred
with an honorary doctorate in law – one of many achievements on her lengthy CV – the college registrar gave a warm speech introducing her.
Her "childhood memories" were of "basketball, national and local elections, church gate collections. . ." She was "cajoled into wearing a polka-dot dress, to present a full coffee set on a tray to the then Taoiseach's wife, Maureen Lynch" without breaking a single piece.
After school, Kerins wanted to study architecture but she was too young to get on to her course. Her parents wanted her to stay at school but instead she studied nursing in Essex. She topped the class in her post-graduate course in midwifery. She was a campaigner for better pay for nurses and her picture once appeared on the front page of The Daily Telegraph wearing a badge that said "pay, not peanuts" – a slogan that may come back to haunt her in the current climate.
She met her husband, Sean Kerins, after she moved back to Dublin to work in the Meath hospital. There was "a fateful trip to a party at the Richmond Hospital, at which she met young Lieutenant Sean Kerins, who swept her off her feet".
When they returned to Ireland after a number of years, she was appointed to the board of the National Council for the Elderly – her first of many appointments to State boards – and soon afterwards to the National Rehabilitation Board, which is where she came to know Frank Flannery, who was then chief executive of Rehab. She credited Flannery with having a "profound effect" on her career path.
Kerins powered through Rehab to become its head of public affairs, and chief executive of its care division, which meant a lot of networking. Kerins was adept at that.
Several former political advisers recalled her "hanging around" the Dail more than 20 years ago. "She was a mover and shaker," said one. She was said to be pals with Fianna Fail ministers, particularly Mary Wallace, for whom she canvassed when she lived in Meath. She admired Mary Harney, the former Progressive Democrats leader, but according to sources they never became "friends".
Kerins collected a brace of board directorships, many from Fianna Fail, including chair of the National Disability Authority, sat on a panel of the communications regulator, the Broadcasting Commission, the Equality Authority and the health watchdog, Hiqa. She is a permanent representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.
She donated her board fees (€23,000 in 2011) to charity.
Boardroom insiders said Kerins took her duties seriously. She turned up regularly and on time, reading the paperwork and asking questions. "She is a formidable lady. She was very well-prepared at meetings. She is no fool. She is no shrinking violet either," one said. "She did what board members were supposed to do."
Views about her in the disability sector are mixed. Her biggest achievement is acknowledged as being the disability legislation introduced by Bertie Ahern's government. She was on a governmental committee advising him.
"But her problem is her style," according to one insider. "She is very single-minded, fixed on getting a result no matter what the collateral damage might be."
It's not that she is uncaring. But sometimes is seems as though she is so focused on an end result that it's as though "people will go in and out of her consciousness according to their usefulness".
When a 'who's who' of Ireland's most influential business men came together a couple of years ago to work on a blueprint for Ireland's economic recovery, the charity queen not only got in on the act but ended up being co-chair.
Philip Lynch, then chief executive of One 51, who came up with the idea, brought on board heavyweights such as Dick Spring, Denis O'Brien, Dermot Desmond, an ex-Fine Gael attorney general and chair of Goldman Sachs, Peter Sutherland, and the former head of the National Treasury Management Agency, Michael Somers. Frank Flannery was also recruited to the cause.
"Frank Flannery was brought in so that he could rope in John Bruton [the former Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader]," said the source, and to win over the Taoiseach-in-waiting, Enda Kenny. It was Flannery who suggested bringing in Angela Kerins, according to the source.
The group met at weekends in different hotels and venues. "They gave up 15 to 20 Saturdays. There was thousands of hours of work involved, with people doing reports and reporting back on the different sectors," said the source.
It seems that Kerins was not shy of bossing the high-powered tycoons, and took to changing the agenda and taking charge of things like minutes of the meetings. When the group submitted its 38-page report to the Department of the Taoiseach, her name got second billing as "co-chair" of the group.
"She is a very capable lady. But like all controlling people, she is insecure. She was always looking over her shoulder," said the source.
Her friends said that she isn't afraid of sticking her neck out for her causes. She took part in the RTE fashion programme, Off the Rails, to highlight the woeful clothes available for fuller figured women. Kerins, a size 18 to 20, agreed to troop around clothes shops to show what it's like trying to find clothes to suit the larger figure.
She likes bright clothes. She was frustrated by the lack of choice for larger women and complained that the stuff stocked by most Irish shops was grannyish and frumpy rather than stylish and glamorous.
For her part, Angela Kerins has never been accused of living an extravagant lifestyle. She lives in Blackrock in south Dublin, lived in Meath for a while but is now understood to divide her time between her native Waterford and her work in the capital city.
But there have been some controversies. Her husband, Sean Kerins, set up a company, Complete Eco Solutions, with her brother, Joseph McCarthy, which imported timber panels from China used for coffins assembled by Rehab employees. Kerins later said her husband stood down as director when the company got involved with Rehab.
The perception of clubbishness at Rehab is compounded by the organisation's awarding of contracts to some its own directors, not least Flannery's consultancy firm which was paid €66,000 by Rehab in 2012. In another cosy tie-up, the public relations company out batting for Angela Kerins and Rehab all last week has recently retained Flannery's services as a consultant. According to the PR firm Insight, Flannery has had no role in advising Rehab or Angela Kerins, whose mysterious salary will continue to tantalise until she gives in and declares it.