Wednesday 15 August 2018

Justin McAleese: ‘You’ll get people saying it’s nepotism but this is toughest constituency there is for Fianna Fáil’

Justin McAleese: Standing by comments about FF during marriage referendum. Photo: David Conachy
Justin McAleese: Standing by comments about FF during marriage referendum. Photo: David Conachy
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

It seems that Dublin-Rathdown and Fianna Fáil do not a happy marriage make.

They go together about as well as moisturiser and skinny jeans, or Conor McGregor and industrial dollies. 

The party currently holds no seats in the constituency, and the last time it went to the polls it only secured 10pc of votes. Not great.

In a bid to rectify this, Fianna Fáil is shaking things up and changing tack.

It needs someone young, and tenacious. A fresh face who is both familiar but not over-exposed.

And so it has appointed Justin McAleese – the son of former President Mary – as constituency representative for the area.

It’s a shrewd choice, and perhaps raises some questions about nepotism, but we’ll deal with that later.

The constituency is a three-seater, with Transport Minister Shane Ross, Culture Minister Josepha Madigan and the Greens’ Catherine Martin the sitting deputies.

I meet the 33-year-old outside the Step Inn pub in Shane Ross’s stomping ground of Stepaside, where he’s been knocking on doors  and introducing himself to the locals.

Won’t it be a little uncomfortable if we end up rapping on the Transport Minister’s front door?  

“Of course not,” he laughs. “It wouldn’t be awkward at all.”

Justin is chatty, engaging, and highly organised.

I get the impression he is the sort of person who loves making lists and ordering supplies of stationery.

He studied Business in UCD before qualifying as an accountant with PwC.

While he’s currently employed for a satellite communications company, he earned his stripes working as PA to Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary. It’s a role the airline previously advertised as the “worst job in Ireland”, claiming it required an “aversion to bolloxology”.

O’Leary also stated that “Dubs fans, Man U supporters and cyclists” would not only be immediately ruled out, they’d “be tracked down, tortured and shot”.

Justin nods. “Yes, that was me, but it’s not the worst job in Ireland – it’s a brilliant job.” 

He is well used to canvassing; he came to public prominence in 2015 when campaigning for the same-sex marriage referendum.

He spoke openly about the difficulties he faced coming out as a gay man and was extremely critical of Fianna Fáil’s lacklustre commitment to the campaign.

He pointed out that Micheál Martin’s 3,093-word Ard Fheis speech devoted just 28 words to the issue of same-sex marriage, adding that it was “consistent with the effort put in by the party’s TDs during the campaign”.

“Look, I made those comments, and I stand by them,” he says.

“I was supporting the marriage referendum 110pc and I just expected the party to do the same thing.”

He continues: “That’s why I was tough on them...because at the end of the day when you woke up on the 23rd of May, you wanted to make sure every single thing you could do had been done.”

The upcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment is another subject he’s passionate about.

“My position on the Eighth is very simple. I support a repeal of the Eighth Amendment and I support the introduction of the 12 weeks,” he says.

“If the experts and obstetricians in maternity hospitals are telling us that the Eighth Amendment is not working, I don’t see how we cannot listen to that.”

It’s not totally surprising Justin pays heed to medical professionals – his husband Dr Fionán Donohoe (29) is a medical graduate specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology, working in the Coombe Hospital.

But he recognises this is an emotive issue many voters are torn over, and worries nuanced conversation could be overridden by very loud and very angry Twitter spats: “We have loads of echo chambers going on in the world of social media. People think they are canvassing when they are fighting on Facebook and on Twitter...

“You need to get out and talk to people.”

The McAleeses moved from Rostrevor, Co Down, to Dublin after Mary was elected President in 1997.

Justin spent 14 years living in the West Wing of Áras an Uachtaráin and talks about it with a great deal of affection. And with reason as it holds many memories for him. His grandparents lived in the Áras and it’s where his grandfather died.

He talks fondly about the people who worked there and recalls watching his sisters teach family friend Mo Mowlam, the former Northern Ireland Secretary, how to hurl on the lawn.

Faith in the McAleese household was strong – they were regular Mass-goers and Justin sang in the church choir.

It must be hard to remain loyal to the Church, given the Vatican’s attitude to homosexuality, not to mention their recent treatment of his mother.

Last month, Ms McAleese was barred from speaking at the Voices of Faith’s ‘Why Women Matter’ conference in the Vatican.

“The irony there is not lost on anyone,” he says. “You have a woman who has been educated by the Dominican nuns in Belfast, who has been a long-committed member of the Catholic Church and stood by it in thick and thin.

“The nuns gave her the tools to be a lawyer, to go to college, to study law, and then you have an event about women in the Church and she is told she can’t speak?”

It was believed Ms McAleese was refused permission to speak because she had previously criticised the Church’s strident attitudes to LGBTQI communities.

Justin shares that frustration and is concerned how welcome members of his community will feel when Pope Francis arrives in Ireland this summer for the World Meetings of Families.

“We have heard it will be an inclusive event and there’s a big welcome to the LGBTQI community, but actions speak a lot louder than words,” he says.

The removal of pictures of same-sex couples from the World Meeting of Families booklets circulated to Irish parishes has made him sceptical.

“There is a pattern of behaviour which says gay people are not welcome and for me that is disappointing.”

Despite this, he still retains a strong sense of faith and commitment to the Church community.

The last port of call on his honeymoon was meeting a group of nuns he has known since childhood. 

“They couldn’t have cared less about the Church’s teaching on homosexuals, or conversation therapy.

“They just wanted to hear about the wedding ceremony, the dancing and the craic – for me that’s the real Church”.

Growing up in the Áras allowed him to see the positive influence politics can have on people, citing Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 2011.

He joined Fianna Fáil at 15 and last year decided he’d spent enough time talking about politics on bar stools – it was time for action.

The main issues he wants to raise when canvassing are problems with the healthcare system and homelessness.

Justin says: “We are really good at developing nice documents that look glitzy and sound great but there is no road path to implementation, there is no plan for execution and there is no delivery.”

Fianna Fáil, he argues, knew how to deliver: “Between 1997-2011, there were around 4,000 social houses built every year. In 2011 to today, there were 4,000 social houses built in totality – so there is no wonder there is a problem in social housing.”

This is true-ish.

Social housing output has fallen off a cliff in recent years, but Fianna Fáil had decided to wind down building output in the wake of the crash, so things were inevitably going to slow.

“Look, I accept that there were failures in the past, but I wouldn’t be running for Fianna Fáil if I didn’t think they had learned from those mistakes,” he says.

“In life, sometimes the biggest lessons you learn are from the biggest failures.”

Hang on a second – are you suggesting if Fianna Fáil had stayed in power they’d have dug us right back out of this mess?

“Well, they’re not in power, so you can’t answer that question,” he answers.

“But there is an issue about housing that hasn’t been addressed by the Government in any constructive way in the last seven or eight years.”

There is always a window where you can blame the last person in the job, he tells me, but “that window is closed”.

I think this will prove to be a harder sell than he believes.

“Fianna Fáil? You’re a brave man,” one resident tells him.

Others in the Stepaside estate are more welcoming.

“You’ve come to the right place – we’re red hot Fianna Fáil-ers here,” one man says.

His wife calls over his shoulder: “Bertie was on the telly last night – I still wave at Bertie every time he comes on the telly.”

Someone else picks up on the surname.

“How did you go from the Phoenix Park to Stepaside?”

“I drove,” Justin replies.

Being the son of a former President undoubtedly raises his profile and helps get a foot in the door, but keeping it there is another matter.

“You will always get people saying nepotism is alive and well,” he says. “But this is the toughest constituency for Fianna Fáil.

“They got 10pc of the vote here the last time; there is no McAleese seat sitting there. Or any Fianna Fáil seat. I have a lot of hurdles ahead.”

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