Sunday 23 July 2017

Serving two hard masters

Damian Lawlor

WEDNESDAY afternoon in Dáil éireann as Peter Fitzpatrick arrives at the entrance gates, sidestepping protestors and tour guides to extend an invitation inside.

Fitzpatrick, elected just 13 weeks ago, is still adjusting to life as a Government backbencher. The porters initially greet him as 'Fitzer' until they notice he's in company and quickly change their welcome. "Hello, Deputy Fitzpatrick."

It's 10 days before Louth's championship opener against Carlow. It's Fitzpatrick's third season as manager and, after last year's emergence, this season's Division 3 league success and recent player comebacks, he is looking forward to getting back on the sideline. Outside of football, however, problems loom. For instance, 102 jobs look doomed following Vodafone's call to shift employment from Dundalk to Indonesia.

Fitzpatrick received 8,000 first preference votes in the General Election so this is his beef now. Fighting against job losses in his constituency is very much his priority. Securing the futures of those 102 people is more important than beating Carlow today but, equally, he can't afford to lose in Portlaoise this afternoon. It's a delicate balancing act.

"I've a lot to learn but I run politics like a business -- I look, listen and learn," he says. "From day one I decided not to bullshit people. I'll take details off everyone who contacts me and will help with housing or social welfare, whatever. But if it can't be done I'll say it.

"As for the Louth footballers, I played for them for 16 years, managed county teams from under 14 to minor and am in my third year as senior manager. In all that time I only missed one session because my mother was sick. People say I can't do two jobs but I'm doing them at the moment.

"Others approach me -- even in my home town -- and say it's disgraceful that I've two paid jobs during such bleak times. They think I'm getting around 60 or 70,000 euro for managing Louth because it happens elsewhere. I enjoy looking them in the eye and replying that I don't get a penny. And I don't. Managing this team is just a fantastic honour; a job I wanted for the past 15 years."

Fitzpatrick hadn't even warmed his Dáil office when he found himself rigorously defending his capacity to serve two masters. While he's well-paid as a TD and enjoys a certain status, it's not simple. Indeed he now appreciates sceptics' concerns that he could not combine both jobs. Having just turned 49, while fit as a flea, he can only burn the candle at both ends for so long.

"The biggest problem is trying to keep everyone happy so when the football season is over I'll sit down with family and see where this goes," he admits. "I'll be 50 next year and will have to see if all this can be maintained. It's 24/7. I get up every morning at 6.45 and might take my last phone call at midnight. At the end of the season we'll look at things again.

"But it could be a lot worse. I don't drink or smoke and while I'm away the whole time my wife Ann knows where I am. Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I'm in the Dáil -- the rest of the time I'm with constituents or with the Louth team."

MONDAY

The alarm sounds at 6.45 and Fitzpatrick takes his dog Bonnie for a walk. He never takes a breakfast and instead heads straight into his constituency office in Dundalk for 8.30am.

"I read the papers to brief up," he says. "I'd always turn to the back pages first and read from there, but obviously it's the opposite now. LMFM call at 8.30am looking for an interview on local business closures.

"Already, the emails are stacking up. I can't get through them all so I ask my secretary for help; there are hundreds. People think your bullshitting saying how busy it is but I have requests from all political backgrounds and have to help."

Every Monday he visits employees at factories in Dundalk and the rest of the county. It gets him out of the office.

"Then, from 2.0 to 5.0 people come to meet me in 15-minute slots. I'm lucky that they don't expect miracles. Today, I had to tell someone that what they wanted was unrealistic. She was aggravated and replied that another politician was also looking into it for her. I asked how long she was waiting for a reply -- it had been seven weeks. I told her that's because nothing could be done for her. She wasn't happy, but respected my honesty. Sometimes people just want you to listen. No point leading them up the garden path."

Afterwards, it's onto the Fairways Hotel in Dundalk for a meeting. He doesn't get home until 11.30.

"At least my family is also involved now; my wife and kids joined Fine Gael so it's something we all have in common. I work on my Dáil speech for the next day -- then it's off to bed."

TUESDAY

MOST of the day is spent in anticipation of a speech on the Criminal Justice Bill. He has to battle for airtime in the Dáil and so chooses his subjects carefully. His first speech on April 19, for instance, was within his comfort zone: how sport keeps teens away from gangland culture and out of trouble. He addresses the chamber on the investigation of white-collar crime as TDs bid to help the Gardaí with legislation to investigate offences currently hampered by red tape and mass documentation. For seven minutes he speaks of the "embarrassing length of time" it took to investigate possible criminal activity at Anglo Irish Bank. Though apprehensive about the speech, he soon finds his flow and actually runs over time.

"It takes a lot to stand up and talk in the Dáil," he says. "I found it very tough in the beginning but wanted to make my voice heard. You've a short window before many seasoned politicians with years of experience. It's a serious challenge."

The Dáil breaks from 12.30 until 1.30 and Fitzpatrick hits the gym. He stretches, clocks up five kilometres in 19 minutes and showers. It's hardly surprising that he was mostly alone in the fitness studio.

"Very few use the Dáil gym," he remarks. "But fitness is something that I think about every day. Tuesday and Thursdays I run here and at home I run each Saturday and Sunday."

After a bowl of soup it's back to his office to catch up on correspondence before departing for Louth's Centre of Excellence at Darver. First-team regulars Mick Fanning and John O'Brien have returned from Boston to rejoin the side and watch the team lose by three points to Roscommon in a challenge match. Fitzpatrick doesn't mind the result -- they used 26 players and rested the likes of Paddy Keenan; a good night's work.

"We got wind of Mick and John returning four weeks ago but they had something in their system and needed to get it out. When they went from Australia to Boston I was confident they'd rejoin us and it's great they have."

It's also his 49th birthday. He darts home for some dinner and birthday cake at 11.15. "I'd gladly swap my dinner for sweet stuff," he says. "I have an awful sweet tooth on me, I could eat six or seven Mars bars a day. But I'm lucky, my cholesterol is only 3.4 which is nothing so I can get away with it."

At 1.20, after a hectic day, the lights eventually go out.

WEDNESDAY

EACH morning, as the alarm clock sounds, Fitzpatrick wonders what's coming his way. Life was much quieter at Kelleher's Electrical where he previously worked as regional manager.

"With three kids and a mortgage I had bills like everyone else, but I was well set in my job. Politics came out of the blue, but my company was straight up -- they gave me a month off before the election, said I must resign if I was successful, but if not I'd have to be back in work the following Monday morning. It took all the pressure off. From then on I decided there would be no regrets."

After saying goodbye to Ann and their children, Stephen, who plays on the Louth senior team, Dara, May and Grace, Fitzpatrick sets off to Dublin to meet a group trying to promote the Irish language. Hardly a priority right now amidst the economic mess, but Fitzpatrick insists it's important to meet them and learn.

"People say I'm a backbencher, that I've no real say but I don't feel like that," he insists. "I have something to give. I know I have."

Later, he speaks about the 102 jobs in his home patch. He will also ask the Minister for State to engage with Vodafone to see if those jobs can be saved and wants a taskforce established. Beforehand, he meets the relevant trade unions and then speaks to Gaelelectric, a group of companies concerned with renewable power generation, to determine if there are any other job prospects ahead.

A group of 35 Fine Gael supporters have travelled from Louth to Dublin for a tour of the Dáil which Fitzpatrick joins at 6.30. He also checks in with the county team's physical trainer Tony McParland to see if the squad's weights session is prepared for that night.

Two hours later, he takes to the floor to debate and heads home at 12.30.

THURSDAY

A TD's life is nothing if not varied. He recently met people with difficulties in their private lives while some callers even asked for advice on weight loss. "It might seem unusual but obesity is a huge problem and it makes people very down," he says. "You could find yourself talking about anything in this job."

It's quiet in the Dáil so he catches up on emails. By lunchtime he has 28 missed calls on one phone.

That evening he leaves for Darver to train the Louth team for two hours. "You'd be chasing injuries and keeping tabs all the time but I didn't want a liaison officer so I can't complain," he says. "We have fine men in Peter McDonnell, Martin McQuillan, Gerry Cumiskey and Brian McEniff is back now too, so it's like a breath of fresh air. We're not dictators; there's a freedom to us. I don't mingle with my players but there's a good respect there."

FRIDAY

FRIDAY is taken up with local issues. "I called to two factories and met people at our local institute of technology, DKIT, to see what initiatives we could set up to get jobs. After that it was a chat about Louth County Hospital. We have received a commitment that the hospital won't close and now we need to ensure that the A&E department comes back.

"The local media are on about the Vodafone issue and I have meetings with the IDA and Enterprise Ireland to see can we do anything to help."

He enjoys a break this evening when his son, Stephen, takes part in a charity Strictly Come Dancing event at Oriel Park.

"I was told to be there, simple as that," he smiles. "I brought Ann as well; I bring Ann to everything I'm invited to. We're 28 years together and the relationship has to come before politics or sport."

SATURDAY

SOMETIMES, while jogging in Blackrock, last year's notorious Leinster final replays in his mind and dogs him.He can't help it.

"You drive around and see kids wearing Louth jerseys and sense we achieved something last season. It was 53 years since we got to a final and as a player I'd been beaten in six semi-finals. But it really annoyed me how that final finished. Still does.

"Still, a new road starts. We won Division 3 of the league this year; we can compete against big boys like Meath, Westmeath and Kildare and Carlow are our first championship challenge now. We're ready for that."

The team's third session of the week is held that afternoon. Team management outline their plans for match week which includes DVD analysis, stretching and two other tactical sessions. Once training ends, Fitzpatrick hits the road again, calling to constituents around Ardee, Carlingford and Drogheda who couldn't make it in to visit him.

SUNDAY

Match days or pre-championship training days are usually consumed with player welfare, communication, logistics and gear.

"It's only when a game is over that you can wind down," he says. "My social life is gone altogether now. My wife and I were out last Sunday and spent the whole evening taking contact details. One lad came over, called me an 'oul shithead' and said I wouldn't get back to anyone. I asked what his problem was and he went off saying that 'all TDs were shitheads'. I asked had he anything he wanted to discuss, took his details and rang him back the following Tuesday. This job is full of positives and negatives but I love coming to work and I don't want to let people down."

Today, his focus switches firmly back to football. But Fitzpatrick is ready. Variety is the spice of his life.

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