Saturday 17 November 2018

No regrets: 'I won't stand idly by while my party suffers...'

Rebel TD John Deasy tells Graham Clifford why he stands over his recent outburst about Enda Kenny and Fine Gael

Graham Clifford and John Deasy
Graham Clifford and John Deasy
John and Maura Deasy
Lunch receipt

Graham Clifford

John Deasy has been here before. Not just to Merry's Gastro Pub in Dungarvan where we meet for a late lunch, though the local TD is an occasional visitor, but rather to the epicentre of criticism with Enda Kenny's style of leadership.

He threatened to stand against the party leader should Fine Gael fail to enter government after the 2007 General Election, and in recent weeks, when interviewed by RTÉ about his views on his party's handling of the John McNulty fiasco, said people within Fine Gael had become "disgusted" with the way its being run.

The 47-year-old, whose wife is RTÉ presenter Maura Derrane, added "the Taoiseach, who likes to give his mobile phone number out to the world, doesn't really engage or entertain criticism".

His comments were hard-hitting and led news bulletins as Enda Kenny and his advisors frantically sought ways of quashing a mess all of their own making. But how did people within Fine Gael react to what the rebel-backbencher had to say?

"Well, the strongest support I received came from actual Fine Gael people around the country, who are so embarrassed by what's happening to their party," he told the Irish Independent this week.

He added: "I try not to gossip with fellow TDs, I think it's not very good for your political health but, of course, I know there are many who share my views and were supportive of the stance I took. They're understandably cautious about going public themselves for fear of the repercussions."

Reacting to the Waterford TD's criticisms, the Taoiseach attempted to brush them off saying he was well used to such comments from Deputy Deasy. Though not surprised by Enda Kenny's short retort, John was disappointed. "He didn't deal with the very clear points I'd made or answer the specific questions I asked a few days later at the parliamentary party meeting - but it's not the first time Enda Kenny has tried to put people down in this way."

It's approaching dinner time in Dungarvan and John opts for the baked crab dish while I plunder the chicken Caesar salad.

Here, amongst his own, the first-time father, whose son Cal was born in mid-May, can take time to evaluate the impact of his words.

"Brendan Howlin has come up with a revised model for ministerial appointments to State boards, and if what I said helped that to come into being, that's something very positive to take out of this," he says.

He insists he's not a trouble-maker on the back benches - "there's nothing the public like less than a whinging TD. It's a well-paid position and I get on with my job and encourage other discontented TDs to do the same. Of course though, it's important that people see through the everyday mind-numbing politics and policy of 'preferment' within parties such as ours and cut to the quick."

And it's the no-nonsense, 'tell it how it is' attitude of one Fine Gael minister, which gives him hope for the future of his party.

"Leo Varadkar was given a job to do in health and has decided that he needs to explain the problems as they are, not hide them. For three years, the cabinet collectively ignored the problems in the health service and fobbed them off, Leo has exposed the lack of decision making across the cabinet when it comes to that. He's very direct and he makes insecure people very nervous. . . and there's a lot of insecurity at the top of Fine Gael right now," he adds.

Could he be the next leader of Fine Gael, I ask? "Well, he strikes me as a guy who's not planning on sticking around nodding his head and taking a cheque for the next 30 years," says John.

Similarly, it's nigh on impossible to imagine the man opposite me simply ploughing on for the next couple of decades as a backbench TD. His father, Austin Deasy, was Minister for Agriculture in Garret FitzGerald's cabinet from 1982 to 1987 and John was also tipped to be a future minister when he first won the seat vacated by Austin at the 2002 election.

John, who has won cross-party praise for his work on the Public Accounts Committee, spent nearly a decade working as a political and legal advisor in the United States and his stock was high. After winning a scholarship to attend the Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1986, he went on to work for Republican Senator John Heinz and during his short time in his office (Heinz was killed in a helicopter crash in 1991), worked across the areas of foreign affairs and trade, while also contributing to the powerful senator's speeches.

He authored the US Tourist Visa Waiver Bill in 1994, which allowed Irish citizens to travel to the US on holiday without having to obtain a visa.

Deasy also worked as a lobbyist and, subsequently, for Rhode Island's then Senator Ronald Machtley as a legislative assistant. After spending two years as manager of legislative affairs for Chicago-based international law firm, he decided it was time to return home in 1997 to study law in UCC. "I got a hankering to come home. I didn't want to stay in America for the rest of my life. In saying that, I wouldn't mind going back there in the future to work for a year - we'll see."

Looking over the rim of his coffee cup, and gazing through the window into the empty street outside, John's mind is momentarily elsewhere.

These are particularly hectic days for the poll-topper on both the professional and domestic front. "Maura's just returned to work on The Today Show on RTÉ down in Cork and I'm back in Leinster House following the summer break, so we're just trying to get into a routine with baby Cal," he explains.

"When I'm away from him for a day or two, I really find myself missing him - you leave thinking I might get some much-needed sleep, but quickly start wishing you were back at home with him again," he adds.

Maura was diagnosed with the high-risk condition, placenta previa, and was admitted to Holles Street for observation. In all, she spent two long months in the hospital with John taking her out for a few hours each day to break the monotony.

On May 12, she started to bleed, losing two litres of blood, and doctors had just minutes to do an emergency C-section and deliver baby Cal safely.

"On the day she had Cal, I brought her back to the hospital at 5pm and the bleed started at nine. If it had started when she was away from the hospital, the worst could have happened. It could have all been over in minutes; it was touch and go. We consider ourselves completely blessed that it worked out the way it did," he explains.

For years, when pressed about having children, Maura would inform interviewers that it wasn't necessarily on their radar. When they found out Maura was pregnant, the couple were elated, though inevitable concerns about being older parents crossed John's mind.

'Having children was never something that we dwelled on. I think if we never had a child our marriage wouldn't really have been affected in any respect. It was never an issue," says John, adding, "when you're 46, like I was, you ask yourself are you too old to have a child, but I suppose there's plenty of people who had a baby older than me. Will it mean I'll be kicking ball with him in 20 year's time? Maybe not, but I'm not going to worry too much about that now. We have a happy smiley baby and that's all that matters."

Already, baby Cal has visited his grandmother and relations on the Aran Islands twice and even joined his parents on a trip to Italy.

As we topic hop from babies to politics, I inform John of my fascination with Irish history and he jumps up from the table saying: "Come with me, this is something you really must see."

We walk across the road from Merry's to a newly erected remembrance wall, unveiled last October, for those from Waterford who perished in World War One.

"I'm fascinated by history and felt this would be a fitting tribute, so I threw myself into researching the sacrifice of those from the county during the Great War. While my grandfather was an old IRA man from Cork, my grandmother, his wife, had three brothers who fought in WWI. In total, there are 1,100 names here, including those of five women who died."

Back in the warmth of the pub, John finishes his coffee and heads for home. A little man needs his dad. . . and a dad needs his little man.

With a new perspective on life, he's determined to speak his mind. Not afraid to rock the political boat, Deasy's very public displays of dissatisfaction with the Taoiseach and the party hierarchy have seen him side-lined in Government. But if the wave of discontent grows within Fine Gael, his fortunes could yet take a significant upturn - will fortune favour the brave?

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