Tuesday 27 September 2016

Non-party TDs who 'join the army' must 'wear the boots'

Published 26/01/2016 | 02:30

Mildred Fox
Mildred Fox

We had have no way of knowing it then. But something important happened in our political culture at the Spa Hotel in Lucan, Co Dublin in late June 1997.

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Three Independent TDs - Jackie Healy-Rae from Kerry, Mildred Fox of Wicklow and Harry Blaney of Donegal - gathered to consider their options. The two elderly males were gnarled former Fianna Fáil veterans who had wars of various durations with their old 'mother ship'.

Ms Fox, the daughter of a former Fianna Fáil politician who also had his battles with the party, was much younger but shared their rural background and had a similar outlook on their political futures.

We must rely upon Healy-Rae's account, as told to his biographer Dónal Hickey just weeks later.

The trio agreed to stick together - while doing individual local deals.

The biggest issue for all three was the 'A-word' - access. The eager incoming Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, guaranteed each of them direct access to a cabinet minister when required.

A higher executive officer moved into Roinn an Taoisigh, tasked solely with liaison for all three to the higher echelons of the administration. Mildred Fox (pictured) gave some flavour of her deal some time later but neither of the other two did.

In his inimitable south Munster pronunciation, Jackie Healy-Rae said he secured "several millin" for this and "a few millin" here and there. He always emphasised that the sums involved in all cases were reasonable and well due to the area.

The Kilgarvan man always insisted that there would be no comparison with the Tony Gregory deal for Dublin Central in 1982.

The reality is that they got first refusal on announcing constituency investment projects - many of which were programmed to happen anyway.

Jackie Healy-Rae also insisted that there was never any case of "holding guns to the Government's head". The blunt reality was that better access, and enhanced parliamentary back-up to help the trio do their job, oiled the wheels to a very large degree.

Soon after, they became a quartet, when Tom Gildea of Donegal South-West joined the club.

It was an uncomplicated case of constituency cupboard love. Or, as the Americans would have it, pork-barrel politics. The big point was that the quartet took the rough with the smooth and stayed behind Ahern's coalition, which many pundits had wrongly predicted could not last.

There is an old military aphorism which any would-be government-supporting TDs might factor into their deliberations. It is a pithy variation on ancient advice about taking the rough with the smooth. It goes: "Join the army - wear the boots."

It also sums up what a short-falling coalition may be looking for in their Independent backers. It is why the names of Michael Lowry, Noel Grealish, Michael Healy-Rae and Denis Naughten are among those which crop up when talking of Independents most likely to be chosen to support such a government.

All are seasoned politicians who could be relied upon to do a bit of soldiering.

Irish Independent

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