Monday 19 March 2018

Fine Gael's 'political Cinderella' dreams of returning to the ball

Overshadowed by stellar running mates, Michelle Mulherin lost her Dail seat. She tells Cormac McQuinn where it all went wrong.

Taking stock: Former Fine Gael TD for Mayo, Michelle Mulherin on the shores of Lough Conn Photo: Brian Farrell
Taking stock: Former Fine Gael TD for Mayo, Michelle Mulherin on the shores of Lough Conn Photo: Brian Farrell

It's the Monday before the election and the TF Royal Hotel Castlebar is packed to the rafters.

More than a thousand people are there for the last of broadcaster Vincent Browne's People's Debates.

And they scented blood.

Two days earlier, Taoiseach Enda Kenny had branded some in the town as "All-Ireland champion whingers" and didn't clarify the remarks until that morning to claim that he was referring to Fianna Fail politicians.

Browne asks for a special round of applause for Fine Gael's Michelle Mulherin. She had bravely agreed to appear, while her colleagues Mr Kenny and junior minister Michael Ring weren't present.

So was the applause encouraging?

"Do you know what it could remind you of a bit?" Ms Mulherin says, a month on from the event, "You know when the gladiators come in and they all start applauding because what's going to happen next? There's some fella going to come a cropper here...

"It's like, 'Oh yeah, let's have some blood on the floor.'"

As it happens, she held her own during the debate but it wasn't enough for her to keep her seat the following Friday.

Ms Mulherin has now opened up on what went wrong in the campaign in Mayo and elsewhere and how, despite it all, she is still loyal to Enda Kenny.

The former solicitor brushes off the somewhat intense TV3 appearance, saying that in her 17 years as a public representative she had never been afraid to face the electorate.

"I don't get too many platforms, being the Cinderella in this constituency, so I was delighted to be on Vincent Browne. I didn't mind whatsoever being challenged.

"I believe I had the most difficult position of any government backbench TD," she says.

"I was on the same party ticket as the Taoiseach, the highest-profile person in the country, and a very popular junior minister.

"It definitely is an impediment from the point of view of getting elected. It's trying to get out of the shadow of two very prominent people.

"Look, the election is done but down through the years... in all fairness I worked my butt off on so many projects that were delivered. I didn't get the announcement at any of them. Sure where's your political oxygen (then)?"

Ms Mulherin says she has "no regrets" about her election campaign and credits her team with helping her get more than 9,500 votes.

"I believe that it was factors beyond my control that saw me ultimately lose the seat," she says.

She is highly critical of how the strategy played out in Mayo. Fine Gael supporters were to give Ms Mulherin number one votes in Ballina and Swinford, among other areas, and second preferences in all parts of the county where Mr Kenny and Mr Ring were to get the number ones.

Asked if she feels she got enough support from Mr Kenny and Mr Ring, she pauses and smiles. Eventually, she responds, saying that there's a strategy committee analysing the election.

She complains that the party did no polling in Mayo, asking: "How can you be strategising and have no poll done?

"The strategy was a poor one because it didn't work. We could have got three seats," she adds.

Ms Mulherin was present at the Castlebar rally where Mr Kenny made the infamous "whingers" gaffe during his speech.

"My initial reaction was that it was a choice word," she says when asked about what she was thinking at the time.

"Without a doubt, it was mentioned on several doorsteps" she adds. "I can understand from a human point of view how it can happen. He did clarify it but it would have been better (to have done so) sooner, obviously."

Despite having reservations about the campaign in Mayo, Ms Mulherin is loyal to Mr Kenny. She said he had done a "fantastic job" as Taoiseach and she wants to see him remain Fine Gael leader.

"Why wouldn't he stay on? Why aren't people asking that about Micheal Martin?

"Why is it always thought in politics that if things go bad you abandon somebody?" she asks.

"I do think there are other people who could have also carried some of the load of campaigning - other ministers," she says, but declines to name who she means.

On the national campaign, Ms Mulherin still says that Fine Gael's much-derided slogan of 'Let's keep the recovery going' was "a good message".

But asked if there was a failure to communicate the vision to those who hadn't felt any recovery, particularly in rural areas, she replies: "There obviously was."

She was "sorely disappointed" that the plan she had for revitalising rural market towns "wasn't taken seriously".

Last summer, she circulated a set of proposals to fellow Fine Gael TDs and Finance Minister Michael Noonan for bringing "vibrancy" back to neglected towns and villages.

Tax incentives would be provided for first-time buyers to move into abandoned houses, as well as other measures to ensure that small businesses and services like banks, post offices, dentists and doctors would remain in place.

The plan had support from some party colleagues, she says, but adds: "I put the proposal to the Minister of Finance and it really didn't go anywhere else.

"Nothing ever happened. I would have hoped that we would have seen it in the last Budget. We didn't and now it's a flavour-of-the-month topic."

Indeed "town and village renewal" was among the items up for discussion between Fine Gael and potential suitors in government formation in recent days.

Ms Mulherin is not optimistic about the current negotiations between Fine Gael and others on forming a government.

Asked how long she believed a Fine Gael minority government could survive, she replies: "You could see an election within six months."

She says that there seems to be "a majority of TDs in there that don't want to be in government at all.

"Even if something is formed - some government, whatever it will be - it's hard to see with the way Fianna Fail are carrying on that it would last."

She claims that Fianna Fail has "got away with blue murder" with its return to improved electoral fortunes.

But while she has harsh words for that party, she is more diplomatic towards its candidate, Lisa Chambers, who won her seat in Mayo.

"I don't know Lisa and I wish her well. I wish her well in her work for our county and our country."

The former TD is proud of her role in highlighting the plight of Elverys Sports workers, whose jobs were at risk in 2014, as well as fighting for more investment in Knock Airport.

She says she got the N26 road upgrade back on track with €2.85m for the planning stage and helped deliver new schools, funding for sports clubs and cash for the upgrade of Ballina District Hospital and St Augustine's Nursing Home.

And she defends Irish Water, pointing out that there has been €50m in investment in Mayo as a result of the utility.

She believes that voters in the county - many of whom paid for water even before charges - were more concerned about jobs and investment than water charges.

Ms Mulherin says the delay in announcing the actual cost of the water charges was among the main causes of the protests as householders needed assurances earlier that they wouldn't be "drowning in the cost of a water bill".

The former backbencher made headlines last year when it emerged that she had made around €3,000 worth of calls to a friend in Kenya using an Oireachtas phone. She said the calls were work-related and an investigation found that such calls were allowed.

She also paid back the money to avoid the perception that she had benefited personally.

She now says the matter is "dealt with" and it didn't come up on the campaign trail.

Previously, there was a storm over her remarks in the Dail that "fornication" was the biggest cause of unwanted pregnancies. Looking back, she thinks "people got hung up on a word" and that she was simply encouraging people to be responsible but jokes: "I'd better not start another furore here".

She says religion is important to her but "I'm not a Holy Joe or anything. I have a great faith and it keeps me going."

Ms Mulherin says losing her seat "truly isn't the end of the world" but admits that she already misses not being able to engage with the public to help them with their problems.

"Looking back on the five years, I'd say I have absolutely no regrets. I feel that both politically and personally I've come a very long way and I've grown and I think anything in life where you can say that has happened is something really to be appreciated."

She's "taking stock for now" and declined a nomination to run for the Seanad. She wants to be a TD but says of a potential Seanad appointment if Mr Kenny is returned to office: "If the Taoiseach asks you to do something, then that's a whole different ball game."

For now, she says she has to find a job to "pay the bills".

She is still active in Fine Gael and hopes to run in the next general election, whenever that may be. "All the posters are kept," she says.

"Ultimately a lot of people love politics because it's a blood sport," she reflects on the career she loved.

"You have highs going with lows. Mincemeat can be made of you and it's all done in public. And the trick is trying not to take it personally. There's a certain adrenaline. You know, I enjoyed it."

Mayo's political Cinderella wants to return to the ball.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section