Underestimated, Jackie took advantage to strike his deal
Independents' deals are back on the table. Donal Hickey recalls how Jackie Healy-Rae struck his famous agreement with FF after the 1997 election.
Published 30/01/2016 | 02:30
At the time, former Tánaiste Dick Spring, who was re-elected as a Labour TD for Kerry North, noted with interest what was happening in the neighbouring constituency of Kerry South. Like many other people, he believed Fianna Fáil made a major mistake in allowing Jackie Healy-Rae leave the party and also underestimated him.
Healy-Rae and his supporters celebrated for several days and nights. The man himself became a celebrity and was unable to cope with invitations to all kinds of functions, from hen parties to stag parties, birthday parties, and photographic sessions with models, shop and pub openings. His phones were hopping and he was on guest lists everywhere. All great fun and a sort of honeymoon period.
But, away from the eyes of the public, there was serious business to be done. He was compiling a 'shopping list' of things that needed to be done in the constituency. To the forefront of his mind was his, or Bertie Ahern's, next move. As Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats (PDs) had not won a majority, there would be a hung Dáil. Fianna Fáil had 77 seats and the PDs four, so Bertie needed the votes of at least two Independents to form a minority Fianna Fáil/PD administration. Healy-Rae and other Independents would be the power brokers and Bertie needed their support. They would have an opportunity to prop up a new government and secure deals for their constituencies.
Healy-Rae had the guile and experience to take full advantage of Bertie's dilemma. He had warned Fianna Fáil it would lose a seat in Kerry South if he wasn't added to the ticket and had been proved right. As he had signalled, Bertie and Fianna Fáil would have to reckon with him and, now, he was in a position of strength.
On June 11, five days after the election, Jackie travelled by train to Dublin. He was met at Heuston Station by Fianna Fáil Senator Donie Cassidy, who, in Puck Fair parlance, would become a tangler, or deal-broker, in upcoming talks with Bertie. Jackie sat into Cassidy's black Mercedes and was chauffeured to Leinster House.
The waiting media were curious. They wanted to know Healy-Rae's attitude and demeanour. Not for the first time, he surprised the reporters. "I'm the easiest man in the world to meet," he declared calmly. "They said I said Bertie would have to crawl to me. I'd never ask anyone to do that, not even a dog, and certainly not Bertie Ahern." There was no huffing and puffing and not a sign of braggadocio. "Last Saturday was the proudest day of my life. I fought against the power of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour and their massive funding and got 7,220 first preference votes."
He made it clear that if he got a commitment from Ahern for investment in jobs and roads in south Kerry, the new government could rely on his vote. There was none of the wild talk about Ahern having to travel down to Kerry to meet him. Healy-Rae seemed the essence of reason and common sense. Everyone knew his support was crucial for the stability of the new government.
In an important gesture which recognised his Fianna Fáil background, he was given an office in a corridor exclusively for Fianna Fáil deputies. They were, essentially, saying he was still one of their own. Fianna Fáil top brass were taking him seriously. The 'buffoonery' for which he was portrayed in sections of the Dublin media, and talk by Fine Gael's John Bruton that he was a character more at home in a Sean O'Casey play, were forgotten.
When Taoiseach Charlie Haughey visited Kerry South during a general election campaign, in November 1982, Jackie Healy-Rae, as constituency director of elections for Fianna Fáil, joined in calls for a stable government. They wanted no more Gregorys, said Healy-Rae, a reference to a deal the Dublin Independent TD had done with Haughey earlier that year in return for his support for a minority government. Under the Gregory deal, there would be a multi-million regeneration of Dublin's inner city.
However, in 1997, when Healy-Rae found himself in a similar position to Gregory, he had no problem about making a deal for his constituency. In the best political tradition, pragmatism took over.
Just before the May 1997 election, he hinted he might be open to a Gregory-type deal. Campaigning in Killorglin, he said he intended to kick up "holy bloody murder" in the Dáil over the state of the roads and lack of jobs in south Kerry.
"Tis a sort of Gregory deal. If I hold the balance of power, I'd vote for Bertie Ahern if there was funding for the country roads and some guarantee of jobs for the young people," he said.
As expected, Bertie concluded agreements with Healy-Rae and two other Independents from the so-called Fianna Fáil gene pool - Harry Blaney, Donegal North East, and Mildred Fox, Wicklow, with another Independent, Tom Gildea, Donegal, also supporting. All got separate deals for their constituencies in return for pledges to vote for the government.
Michael Healy-Rae, his sister Rosemary, a barrister, and an inner circle of advisers, including engineer Risteard O Lionaird and John O'Donoghue, Farranfore, were all part of the negotiating team. O Lionaird revealed, years later, that Fine Gael made an approach to Jackie offering him a Cabinet ministry in return for his support in the event of Fine Gael forming a government.
Fine Gael leader John Bruton, who had been Taoiseach of the previous government, phoned Jackie from Newfoundland and found him to be very courteous. Agriculture was the suggested ministry for the pensioner-cum-rookie TD. But Fine Gael just didn't have the numbers to form a government and the deal with Bertie was a better and more sustainable fit.
The itemised, 'confidential' agreement with Ahern - details of which were not made public at the time - included a large number of road projects around the constituency, money for piers and harbours, grants for agriculture and pledges on job-creation. In the years ahead, Healy-Rae would make numerous announcements for the constituency which were included, either specifically or by aspiration in the agreement.
An extract from 'The Healy-Raes - A 24/7 Political Legacy' by Donal Hickey, (Rushy Mountain Books)