Friday 23 February 2018

Michael Fitz - the West of Ireland man in his van has a plan

Michael Fitzmaurice outside his constituency office in Roscommon town. Photo: James Flynn
Michael Fitzmaurice outside his constituency office in Roscommon town. Photo: James Flynn
Lise Hand

Lise Hand

Michael Fitzmaurice - known locally as Fitz - is behind the wheel of his pea-green van, working his mobile phone like a demon as he hurtles down country lanes in a cloud of dust and profanities.

"We're not stalling progress, we're trying to stop a road from being busted," he assures the far end.

His van is a vehicle as far removed from a ministerial car as can be; the back contains tyres and some tools, the dashboard adorned only by his Oireachtas pass swinging from a useful protrusion and a bundle of biros for jotting down numbers. His iPhone is a Picasso - the screen a mosaic of cracks, the back dented.

"I did 61,000km in a year. And I need a new phone," he grinned.

The Independent TD for Roscommon-South Leitrim is having a typical day. It began early in Dublin with a meeting with a bank regarding a struggling business in his constituency, then to Longford for an interview with Shannonside Radio, then onto the constituency office in Roscommon town, then to Ballyhaunis (outside his constituency) to meet Fr Peter McVerry at a new support centre for people facing eviction. Then it was off to Dunmore to check on progress of a new garage and shop due to open this week, before checking out a dispute involving a mill.

En route to the mill, he points to an isolated small school, Glinsk National School, just over the border in Galway. It lost funding in 2013, so they held a raffle.

Michael persuaded local breeder Des Joyce to donate a pedigree bull as the main prize. "They sold all the tickets and raised €100,000," he explained. (The animal was named Hero).

He also had to attend an Age Awareness event in the town, go to the launch of a poetry book, and also the launch of a charity walk. And attend a removal.

"I only go to funerals of people I know. None of that political carry-on," he said.

His packed diary meant he had to turn down taking part in a local Strictly Come Dancing event. "I've danced in Connacht finals," he mentioned casually.

Michael points out at a field as he flies along. "Google aren't going to come here, so it's about creating jobs in twos, threes, fours," he said. "Anyone who thinks 5,000 jobs are coming to Cloonfad is living in f***ing cloud cuckoo-land."

But he reckons that the west is on the back foot businesswise due to lack of infrastructural investment. "If I was Taoiseach, I'd have a motorway from Dublin to Castlebar."

Ah yes, Castlebar. This week Michael managed to seriously rile Mayoman Enda during Leaders Questions by highlighting lack of investment in the region. "The Taoiseach might have forgotten, but he's from the west," he charged. A clearly livid Enda retorted, "That comment is beneath you, as a west of Ireland man".

But three days later, Michael was unrepentant.

"That's good. I want him to get his ministers to focus more attention on the counties in the west where the unemployment is still high and to get them in line with the national level. And if the price of telling the truth is that they're vexed with me, I'll gladly pay the price."

He's only a year in the job, having won the by-election sparked by Ming's departure to Europe. The constituency is huge, sprawling from Ballinasloe to the Cavan border, and he admits the hours are "hellish". His three children are usually asleep when he gets in at midnight (he hates hotels, so rarely overnights in Dublin) and when he leaves early. "Some nights I'm driving home, banging my head off the window and saying to myself, 'Am I a header for doing this?' It can be a lonesome life, with wife and kids at home. But I believe we can make all of rural Ireland a better place - all of it, not just the west."

His phone rang again. "Yes, Lord Ross?" he greets his Independent Alliance compadre. Despite announcing upon arrival in Leinster House that he had no interest in joining any political party, he's now joined in Shane's gang. He regards it as a practical move. "Nobody votes for you to be opposition. I want to get things done, and it makes sense to ally yourself to others who want the same," he reckoned. "The Dublin TDs don't know what to make of me, though".

His phone never lets up for a moment. He hunts down a number for someone in the NRA, he dictates a letter to one of his staff to send to Leo Varadkar regarding a hospital issue. He sorts out two problems by mid-afternoon. "The thing is not to ring about a problem, but ring with a solution," he explained. "All you can do is make an honest effort, and then get the f*** out".

Irish Independent

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