Sunday 25 March 2018

John Drennan: Exiled Fidelma still directed by her strong moral compass

Healy Eames has found herself just too policy-driven and too intense for the good old boys of Fine Gael, writes John Drennan

Fidelma Healy Eames
Fidelma Healy Eames
John Drennan

John Drennan

EVERY rose may have its thorn but when it comes to Fine Gael, Fidelma Healy Eames has, from Enda Kenny's viewpoint at least, been a thornier bloom than most.

His complex relationship with Lucinda Creighton may have secured more headlines but Fidelma has caused no shortage of heartache for Enda and the rest of the Grumpy Old Men from the Cabinet.

On Friday, the day before she begins the new political venture of the Reform Alliance, Eames is at pains to discount any unpleasantness, noting that she and Enda "never had words, he is very gracious, we have a grand relationship, I'm into policies and issues, not personalities".

It is a stance that appears somewhat innocent, given the subsequent revelations about constituency and HQ machinations and the elevation of Hildegarde Naughton, who coincidentally is from Fidelma's own parish, to a seat in the Seanad.

But there again that may be Fidelma's problem; that she is too innocent, too policy-driven and too intense for the good old Fine Gael boys such as Phil and Enda, who despite running the largest party in the State have only managed to find one woman worthy of being a minister.

Certainly her view that "I don't think we should be in politics to deceive" is not one that would garner too much respect in certain quarters. Intriguingly, the moral template for Healy Eames career in politics is Daniel O'Connell's view that "nothing is politically right that is morally wrong".

Her difficulties when it came to the Pregnancy and Human Life Bill were undoubtedly influenced by her adoption of two children.

She tells the Sunday Independent: "I went into politics to give thanks, I felt fortunate in my life."

In particular when it came to this issue she notes: "As an adoptive parent, a mother of two children, I wouldn't have either of these children unless their birth mother chose life."

She claims that when she made the decision to join Fine Gael, it was because it "was in the DNA, I admired in a big way Garret Fitzgerald, the 'just society', Michael Collins and the whole thing about national duty, national service".

Enda, she notes gently, brings somewhat different qualities to the political fray.

Healy Eames does admit when it came to issues such as the car tax furore, where the tax disc wasn't displayed, and the train row, when she was fined for not having a valid ticket, last summer, she fostered a slightly different image. She admits to the Sunday Independent: "I was terribly embarrassed, totally humiliated, but nobody has lived the perfect life."

Though Healy Eames has had more than a few differences with the Grumpy Old Men of the Cabinet, she claims: "I like men, I like men in politics, I do business with them."

She notes though: "I do think there is an important role for women in politics, we bring a life experience, that sentiment, that feeling that is different."

Eames is particularly concerned about the consequences of the proposed referendum on the abolition of the Seanad for a democracy already impaired by the difficulties it presents to women.

With a woman's practicality, she warns that "when we take big decisions in life, if we are wise, we take some time over them. We ask our friends for advice. In some situations, we seek a professional's opinion. In other words, when faced with major choices, we take a second look."

In her view, if "we all agree that the process of making our laws is an important business, why is the Government proposing stripping away the constitutional method of taking a second look, by abolishing the Seanad".

She warns that "real democracy isn't just about the ability to choose the Government by regular elections. It is about making the Government accountable to the Irish people while they're in power."

The Government might be anxious to abolish as many politicians as it can, but Eames warns "concentrating power in the hands of so few politicians is quite dangerous".

"I agree with fewer politicians, but not too few."

This, she adds, is all the more critical given that "we have one of the most oppressive whip systems in the western world. I believe in order but I believe in critical thinking and diversity; Cameron didn't throw out his MPs when they voted against Syria, Obama doesn't expel people from the Democrats when they vote against his proposals."

Healy Eames is also critical of the absence of creative thought in designing our constitutional architecture citing, "someone who said to me recently, if we are sufficiently motivated to tear down a house, could we not be brave enough to build a new one. After all, if you had a leaky roof, the wise thing to do would be to fix it, not remove it."

This, she adds, "would mirror more closely the 'transformational change' and reform of politics that Richard Bruton and Fine Gael proposed before the General Election of 2011."

She notes: "It was Lord Acton who famously said that 'power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. We all understand it instinctively. Too much power concentrated in too few hands is not good."

She argues: "Even now, people recognise that more and more decisions are being taken away from the Dail and handed to faceless 'advisers'. The collective power of the Cabinet has been further centralised in a four-man team in the Economic Management Council."

She also wonders how all these belated promises "about Dail reform can work when there was no vision for Dail reform until the debate surrounding the proposed abolition of the Seanad started".

The public, she says, deserves better than window-dressing that hides an escalating politics of "less scrutiny, stifling debate, imposing an ever narrower consensus that is not good, not healthy, not democratic".

The Seanad "isn't perfect, but it is one of the few checks on the executive we have and if gone, who will hold Government to account?''

When it comes to her association with the Reform alliance, Healy Eames has no regrets, noting: "We are not serving the people that we elect if we vote against our conscience."

Being exiled from Fine Gael was she admits "very hard on a personal level", but she notes: "People elect you because they think you have a brain, a view."

That, however, is not compatible with the herd instinct inculcated by the whip system that she warns does not allow "for diversity of thought, critical thinking and good judgement".

Healy Eames is also anxious to note that the Reform Alliance is not just about abortion but about representing "the 1.2 million employed in SMEs, the farming community . . . and the biggest issue, debt".

Like her colleagues, she is at further pains to say it is not about being against Enda; "the 'reform alliance' is a working title, we are being called the FG rebels or dissenters, this is a more positive description of our work''.

When asked is she saying goodbye to Fine Gael, she notes: "Well Fine Gael are the party of my history, we are in this spot by default, we kept our promises, voted on the conscientious evidence, we kept our core value and were thrown out."

But Eames also notes: "We have to be prudential and pragmatic, do we get on with the work we are supposed to, that we are paid and mandated to do by the taxpayer."

She is also anxious to depersonalise the split, warning, again, politics shouldn't be about personalities. "Fidelma Healy Eames, Lucinda Creighton, Enda Kenny, we are all only passing through."

Commenting on the ongoing plots and heaves after the abortion aftershock, the moral vision Enda and the good old boys have always found so difficult is evident in Fidelma's observation that "I don't think it is good for Fine Gael to be dealing with people in the way they are, knocking people down to protect others".

Sadly, given that many have built a fine career out of doing little else, it is likely the advice of Eames will fall on deaf ears, given that within Fine Gael and elsewhere the good ole boys and their willing acolytes are in the ascendant, busy putting manners on their enemies.

But, as the resilience of Fidelma shows, they will always be opposed by those who have a different ethic.

Sunday Independent

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